My book Industrial Poverty: Yesterday Sweden, Today Europe, Tomorrow America will be officially available as hardcopy and e-book on September 10. This book basically asks a two-step question: Has the industrialized world entered a state of permanent economic stagnation? If so, is the state of stagnation self-inflicted?
I suggest that the answer is affirmative on both accounts. The consequence is dire for the two largest economies in the world:
- Europe is stuck in a depression that is leaving one in five young man and woman with no other option than to live off welfare;
- While the U.S. economy is improving, it is a recovery that leaves a lot to be wished for, primarily in terms of job creation and economically sustainable consumer spending.
The United States will continue to move, slowly, in the right direction, but without structural reforms to end large entitlement systems it will be very difficult to achieve more than 2-2.5 percent growth per year. That is just about enough to maintain a constant standard of living on an inter-generational basis.
A growing number of economists are expressing concerns about what will come after the Great Recession. One of them is Stanley Fischer, the number two guy at the Federal Reserve. From the New York Times:
Sounding a somber note even as the economic outlook in the United States brightens, the Federal Reserve’s No. 2 official acknowledged on Monday that global growth had been “disappointing” and warned of fundamental headwinds that might temper future gains. … Stanley Fischer … noted that although the weak recovery might simply be fallout from the financial crisis and the recession, “it is also possible that the underperformance reflects a more structural, longer-term shift in the global economy.” In a speech delivered on Monday in Stockholm at a conference organized by the Swedish Ministry of Finance, Mr. Fischer also conceded that economists and policy makers had been repeatedly disappointed as the expected level of growth failed to materialize.
My book is timely, in other words… To be perfectly honest, the reason why “economists and policy makers had been repeatedly disappointed” during the Great Recession is precisely that they do not primarily think in structural – or institutional – terms. One reason is the over-reliance on traditional econometric methods, which work well so long as there is no major upset to the overall structure of the economy. Another reason is the downgrading of genuine economic theory: today’s average graduate student in economics probably will never read an original text by theory-based scholars like Keynes, von Mises, Hayek, Lerner, Harrod or even Milton Friedman. Today’s academic economics puts the cart before the horse, deciding what tools to use first and then finding a list of problems those tool may apply to. What does not make the list is not of interest.
This is, obviously, an exaggerated stylization, but it is not more than that. Instead of using methodology that asks how soon the European economy will return to business as usual, economists need to begin to ask what reason, if any, the European economy has to return to full employment and growth. I have made my contribution. Stanley Fischer is opening for the same type of non-traditional analysis. Here is what he said, directly from the Federal Reserve website:
[The] Great Recession is a near-worldwide phenomenon, with the consequences of which many advanced economies–among them Sweden–continue to struggle. Its depth and breadth appear to have changed the economic environment in many ways and to have left the road ahead unclear. … There has been a steady, if unspectacular, climb in global growth since the financial crisis. For example, based on recent IMF data from the World Economic Outlook, which uses purchasing power parity weights, world growth averaged 3percent during the first fouryears of the recovery and as of July was expected to be 3.4 percent this year. The IMF expects global growth to reach 4 percent next year–a rate about equal to its estimate for long-run growth. This global average reflects a forecast of steady improvement in the performance of output in the advanced economies where growth averaged less than 1 percent during the initial phase of the recovery to an expected 2-1/2 percent by 2015.
Again, the best we can hope for is growth that – as I explain in my book – keeps our standard of living from a continuous decline. But let us also keep in mind that if we are going to expect Europe to grow by 2-2.5 percent next year, a minor miracle has to happen. A true end to welfare-state saving austerity would be a big step in that direction, but so far we have not seen more than verbal commitments to that. But even as this European version of austerity ends, it will take quite a while before the economy will recover. Confidence, like Rome, is not built in a day, and therefore I predict that Fischer will be too optimistic about Europe.
As we return to Stanley Fischer, he stresses the tepid nature of the global recovery:
With few exceptions, growth in the advanced economies has underperformed expectations of growth as economies exited from recession. Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back. Indeed, research done by my colleagues at the Federal Reserve comparing previous cases of severe recessions suggests that, even conditional on the depth and duration of the Great Recession and its association with a banking and financial crisis, the recoveries in the advanced economies have been well below average.
Which is yet more evidence that my argument that this is a structural crisis is valid. But not only that: the structural crisis is of a kind that traditional economics has not yet grasped. The culprit is the welfare state, the depressing effect of which slowly emerged up to four decades ago. However, unlike other long-term trend suggestions, such as the Kondratiev cycle, my hypothesis about the welfare state has a realistic microeconomic underpinning. More on that at some other point; for now, back to Stanley Fischer:
In the emerging market economies, the initial recovery was more in line with historical experience, but recently the pace of growth has been disappointing in those economies as well. This slowing is broad based–with performance in Emerging Asia, importantly China, stepping down sharply from the post-crisis surge, to rates significantly below the average pace in the decade before the crisis. A similar stepdown has been seen recently for other regions including Latin America. These disappointments in output performance have not only led to repeated downward revisions of forecasts for short-term growth, but also to a general reassessment of longer-run growth.
Does the welfare-state explanation apply to the emerging economies as well? In some cases the answer is yes, with South Africa and Argentina as leading examples. I am not familiar enough with the Chinese economy to be able to tell what role the welfare state plays there, but I would be surprised if their talk from time to time about fighting social stratification has not led to an expansion of a government-based redistribution system.
But it really does not matter if the Chinese are expanding their welfare state, or are wrestling with a financial bubble. Neither is going to change the European economy, which – as we go back to the New York Times story – is showing yet more signs of perennial stagnation:
A report on Monday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that German economic growth might be slowing. Germany has been one of Europe’s rare bright spots, continuing to prosper even as countries on the periphery like Greece, Portugal and Spain struggle after the debt crisis of 2010-12.
Let’s take a closer look at that report on Friday. For now, let’s just note that it is good to see that more and more economists are taking a broader, less conventional look at the economy. Just as I do…
As I explained last week, the American economy is pulling ahead of Europe. One major reason why this is happening is that our welfare state, big and onerous as it is, has not quite yet grown to the point where it brings the private sector to a grinding halt. Our consumers and entrepreneurs still have enough breathing room to pursue happiness and prosperity.
It is a safe bet that Europe will continue to slide behind. More evidence of this is in this Euractiv.com report:
Germany, France and Italy have agreed on closer cooperation in the areas of energy, transport and digital infrastructure. At a meeting in Berlin on Wednesday (July 30), German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, French State Secretary of Europe Harlem Désir and Italian State Secretary of European Affairs, Sandro Gozi agreed on the shared goals. In an explanatory paper, the three Europe ministers emphasised the importance of bridging investment gaps. “It is necessary that we fully exploit existing instruments like the EU structural funds, loans from the European Investment Bank and project bonds,” said Roth. But it is also important to be ready to test new, suitable instruments – regardless whether public or private, he added.
The prevailing political doctrine, in other words, is that more government spending is needed in Europe. The only problem the statists have is that they do not know how to fund that new spending, and that is perhaps the only silver lining in this. After the tax hikes that came with the past few years of austerity, Europe can catch its breath for a while.
This emphasis on government spending is part of a trend that gained momentum with the socialist gains in the EU elections in May. Consequently, it is not surprising that, according to Euractiv, these European politicians…
also emphasised the desire to more strongly address high youth unemployment in many EU member states. Europe should not be reduced to a functioning internal market and a common currency, Roth explained. “Europe is also, and above all, a community of values and solidarity.” Germany, France and Italy have set common goals of fulfilling targets for sustainable growth and improving employment opportunities, said Roth. Above all, this applied to the younger generation, he added.
By using terms like “values” and “solidarity” instead of “freedom” and “opportunity”, Europe’s political leaders declare again that government is the key player in bringing the continent’s economy out of its perennial slump. When government designs policies based on “values” it means imposing ideas of income redistribution on taxpayers, who are then asked to give up some of their money for someone who has not earned it. When government pursues “solidarity” it wants to eradicate differences between individuals in terms of economic outcomes. Jack’s hard work should not give Jack more than what Joe can achieve through sloth and indolence.
There is another interesting angle to this. Euractiv again:
To free up new sources of cash, the European Commission would like to expand project bonds for large infrastructure projects. According to the Commission, these funds will be granted to private investors such as banks and pension funds to support cross-border infrastructure like power grids, roads and railways. The credit quality of loans will be improved through the acquisition of guarantees.
As I have explained numerous times on this blog, a major component of the so called financial crisis was the early and rapid credit decline of Europe’s welfare states. In the years leading up to the crisis, financial institutions in Europe had rapidly expanded their investments in European government debt. As the credit worthiness of those welfare states fell, so did the solidity of bank portfolios. Spanish, Irish, Portuguese, French, Italian and – not to forget – Greek treasury bonds were reduced from practically no credit risk to more or less junk status. As a result, bank balance sheets tumbled, and a real financial crisis emerged – not as a cause of the economic crisis, but as a result of it.
Now governments in Europe want private investors to once again trust them with their money.
Apparently, Europe has learned nothing from the crisis. Instead both voters and political leaders demand more of the very same economic ingredients that caused the crisis in the first place: entitlements, high taxes and unsustainable welfare states.
Europe has turned into an economic wasteland. So long as its politicians keep protecting the welfare state at any cost, the European continent will sink deeper and deeper into perennial industrial poverty.
As an institutional economist I focus my research on the role that institutions and policy structures play in our economy. It is a fascinating niche in economics, and when combined with macroeconomics it becomes one of the most powerful analytical tools out there. So far, over the past 2.5 years, everything I have predicted about the European crisis has turned out to be correct; my upcoming book Industrial Poverty makes ample use of institutional economics and macroeconomics to show why Europe’s crisis is far more than just a protracted recession.
In economics, the institutional methodology is often pinned against econometrics, the mainstream methodological favorite. I don’t see it that way – econometrics has its place in economics – but the mainstream of the academic side of economics has given econometrics a far bigger role than it can handle. This has led to over-confidence among econometricians which, in turn, has led to a downplay or, in many cases, complete disregard for the benefits that other methodologies bring. The worst consequence of this over-reliance on econometrics was the multiplier debacle at the IMF, with serious consequences for the Greek economy. (How many young Greeks are unemployed today because their government implemented austerity policies based on IMF miscalculations?) A wider, better understanding for economic institutions and their interaction with the macroeconomy could help mainstream economists a long way toward a deeper, more complete understanding of the economy and, ultimately, toward giving better policy advice.
As an example of how institutional analysis can inform more traditional analysis, consider this interesting article on the European crisis by Economics Nobel Laureate Michael Spence and David Brady, Deputy Director of the Hoover Institution:
Governments’ inability to act decisively to address their economies’ growth, employment, and distributional challenges has emerged as a major source of concern almost everywhere. In the United States, in particular, political polarization, congressional gridlock, and irresponsible grandstanding have garnered much attention, with many worried about the economic consequences. But, as a recent analysis has shown, there is little correlation between a country’s relative economic performance in several dimensions and how “functional” its government is. In fact, in the six years since the global financial crisis erupted, the US has outperformed advanced countries in terms of growth, unemployment, productivity, and unit labor costs, despite a record-high level of political polarization at the national level.
This is true, and as I demonstrate in Industrial Poverty, a major reason for this is that the American economy is not ensnared in a welfare state like the European. We still lack a couple of major institutional components that they have: general income security and a government-run, single-payer health care system. That said, the U.S. economy is not exactly performing outstandingly either:
Yes, we are currently in better shape than Europe, but we are also doing worse than ourselves 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
Let’s keep this in mind as we continue to listen to Spence and Brady – their discussion about political dysfunction is actually tied to the role of the welfare state in the economy:
[In] terms of overall relative economic performance, the US clearly is not paying a high price for political dysfunction. Without dismissing the potential value of more decisive policymaking, it seems clear that other factors must be at work. Examining them holds important lessons for a wide range of countries. Our premise is that the global integration and economic growth of a wide range of developing countries has triggered a multi-decade process of profound change. These countries’ presence in the tradable sector of the global economy is affecting relative prices of goods and factors of production, including both labor and capital.
And the government structures that aim to redistribute income and wealth within a country. High-tax economies lose out to low-tax economies. The Asian tigers have generally held tax advantages over their European competitors, but they have also held advantages on the other side of the welfare-state equation as well. By not putting in place indolence-inducing entitlement systems they have kept their work force more shaped toward high-productivity labor than is the case in the old, mature welfare states of Europe.
Why does the welfare state not change, then, in response to increased global competition? After all, Japan, China, South Korea and other Asian countries have been on the global market for decades. Enter the political dysfunction that Spence and Brady talk about. Unlike the United States, there is almost universal agreement among Europe’s legislators that the welfare state should be not only preserved but also vigorously defended in times of economic crisis. This has been the motive behind the European version of austerity, with the result that taxes have gone up, spending has gone down and the price of the welfare state for the private sector has increased, not been reduced as would be the logical response to increased global competition.
It is not entirely clear what kind of American political dysfunction Spence and Brady refer to, but if it has to do with fighting the deficit, they are absolutely on target.
In fact, probably without realizing it, Spence and Brady make an important observation about the long-term role of the welfare state:
Relatively myopic policy frameworks may have worked reasonably well in the early postwar period, when the US was dominant, and when a group of structurally similar advanced countries accounted for the vast majority of global output. But they cease working well when sustaining growth requires behavioral and structural adaptation to rapid changes in comparative advantage and the value of various types of human capital.
If understood as a general comment on the institutional structure of an economy, this argument makes a lot of sense. So long as the traditional industrialized world only had to compete with itself, it could expand its welfare states without paying a macroeconomic price for it. Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish economist and a main architect of the Scandinavian welfare-state model, confidently declared back in 1960 that the welfare state had no macroeconomic price tag attached to it. Back then, it was easy to let government sprawl in every direction imaginable without any losses in terms of growth, income and employment. That is no longer possible.
Spence and Brady then make this excellent observation of the American economy:
What, then, accounts for the US economy’s relatively good performance in the post-crisis period? The main factor is the American economy’s underlying structural flexibility. Deleveraging has occurred faster than in other countries and, more important, resources and output have quickly shifted to the tradable sector to fill the gap created by persistently weak domestic demand. This suggests that, whatever the merit of government action, what governments do not do is also important. Many countries have policies that protect sectors or jobs, thereby introducing structural rigidities. The cost of such policies rises with the need for structural change to sustain growth and employment (and to recover from unbalanced growth patterns and shocks).
The move of resources from the domestic to the foreign-trade sector is visible in national accounts data as a rise of gross exports as share of current-price GDP from 9.1 percent in 2003 to 13.5 percent in 2013. Furthermore, actual growth numbers for exports relative private consumption reinforce the point made by Spence and Brady: from 20087 to 2013 private consumption has increased by 15 percent in current prices, while gross exports have increased by more than 22 percent. For every new dollar Americans doled out on cars, food, haircuts and motel nights, foreign buyers added $1.50 to what they spend on our products.
However, let us once again remember that the adaptation of the American economy should be viewed against the backdrop of a smaller welfare state. As I have discussed on several occasions, European countries are also making big efforts at increasing exports. They are not as lucky in using foreign sales as a demand-pull mechanism for restarting their economies. One reason, again, is the rigor oeconomicus that the welfare state injects into the economy.
Spence and Brady also compare the United States to a number of other countries, noting that:
Removing structural rigidities is easier said than done. Some stem from social-protection mechanisms, focused on jobs and sectors rather than individuals and families. Others reflect policies that simply protect sectors from competition and generate rents and vested interests. In short, resistance to reform can be substantial precisely because the results have distributional effects. Such reform is not market fundamentalism. The goal is not to privatize everything or to uphold the mistaken belief that unregulated markets are self-regulating. On the contrary, government has a significant role in structural transitions. But it must also get out of the way.
In short – and my words, not theirs: reform away the welfare state. Its detrimental influence actually stretches deeper than perhaps Spence and Brady recognize: it does indeed protect large sectors from competition by simply monopolizing them. Health care is a good example, with a government monopoly spilling over on medical-technology products. Another good example is income security, where many European countries have de facto monopolized every aspect from parental-leave benefits to retirement security. Education is a third example, where the United States, despite its heavily socialized K-12 system has a very strong private sector for academic education. This sector is almost entirely absent in many European countries.
Again, it is good to see a different approach to economic analysis than the traditional one based on econometrics and often irresponsibly simplified quantitative analysis. In a situation like the European crisis, it is very important for economists and other social-science scholars (Brady is a political scientist) to broaden the analysis and focus on such variables that rarely change. Among those are economic institutions such as the welfare state, and the political and economic incentives at work in Europe to preserve it, even in the face of mounting global competition.
The European crisis still seems to confuse the continent’s policy makers. After having believed for several years that austerity would both save the welfare state and increase growth, they have now slowly began walking away from the EU’s constitutionally required government deficit and debt rules. Instead, there is now growing belief in government spending as the remedy for the persistent crisis.
For the most part, the debate now seems to gravitating toward the question of how much government stimulus is needed. If the continent is indeed in a recovery mode, as some suggest it is, then there is not this big need for more government spending.
It is understandable that some believe there is a recovery under way. According to Eurostat, GDP for the EU as a whole grew by an inflation-adjusted 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2014, over the same quarter of 2013. This is an increase from the last quarter of 2013 (1.0 percent) and in fact the fourth quarter in a row with improving growth numbers.
Technically, this represents a recovery. However, in no way does this mean that Europe is out of the crisis. To see why, let us compare GDP growth rates for EU-28 during the 2009-10 spurt to the one that started in 2013:
|Q2 2009||Q3 2009||Q4 2009||Q1 2010||Q2 2010|
|Q1 2013||Q2 2013||Q3 2013||Q4 2013||Q1 2014|
Early on in the Great Recession, the European economy made a rapid recovery and kept growing at more than two percent per year for four quarters straight. The rate slowly fell, though, and by the second quarter of 2011 growth was once again below two percent. By the end of that year it was below one percent, and down into negative territory in Q2 of 2012.
But should not a growth spurt count as a definitive recovery? Are not four quarters of improvement enough, especially if followed by a year of growth above two percent?
There is some merit to that argument. The problem is that the growth rates discussed here are not the kind of rates that normally would constitute a recovery, let alone a growth phase of a business cycle. Europe is in a structural crisis, which means that its growth rate is permanently lower than it was before. This is now becoming painfully evident in Eurostat’s national accounts data.
It has now been six years since the Great Recession began. For the entirety of the crisis that we have seen so far, namely 2008-2013, the average inflation-adjusted annual GDP growth rate for the European Union is a depressing -0.1 percent.
This is despite the aforementioned growth spurt.
Compare that to the six preceding years, 2002-2007: 2.4 percent. And that covers the back end of the Millennium Recession. Going back yet another six-year period to 1996-2001, we include the opening and trough of that recession, and still come out with 2.8 percent per year!
To further emphasize the structural nature of the European crisis, let us look at a long-term trend in growth. The following figure illustrates GDP growth in the EU as a six-year moving average. Starting in the fourth quarter of 2001 the average begins by covering the 1996-2001 period. The average is quarter-based to give as detailed an image as possible:
The red trend line conveys a chilling message of structurally driven decline. In order to get Europe out of this decline and persistent crisis, economists must re-write their own books on macroeconomics. Surely, the conventional relative-price based advice from accomplished economists such as Michael Spence is still valid: a reduction in the cost of production in Spain vs. other exporting countries will eventually bring about a boost in exports. But as I have pointed out on several occasions, when that boost happens, such as in Germany or Sweden, it has very little influence on GDP growth as a whole. Modern foreign trade in industrialized economies is an isolated activity as many inputs are imported from elsewhere.
But more importantly, the presence of the welfare state throws a heavy, wet blanket over the economy. Austerity, as practiced in Europe in recent years, has added insult to injury by means of even higher taxes and even more perverted economic incentives.
As Michael Spence points out in the aforementioned article, it does not help Europe’s most troubled economies to share currency with Germany. This prevents the exchange rate adjustment needed to reflect global relative production costs. But the conventional macroeconomic wisdom also tends to downplay the growth-hampering effect that welfare states, and welfare-state saving austerity policies, have on GDP.
Spence actually opens for a recognition of this problem in another article together with political scientist David Brady. They acknowledge that modern Western governments have difficulties unifying all their policy goals, including income redistribution. However, Spencer and Brady do not go into more depth on the role that income-redistributing policies may play in causing the downward growth trend illustrated above. Their choice not to do so is understandable – their focus is elsewhere – but it also reflects somewhat of a conventional wisdom among economists: income redistribution and its institutional form, the welfare state, is just another sector of the economy.
It is not. It is the overweight on the private sector that is slowly but inevitably destroying the prosperity of the West. For more on that, stay tuned for my book Industrial Poverty. Out soon!
There is no better macroeconomic “health indicator” for an economy than private consumption. Not only is it the largest part of GDP, but private consumption also reflects well the overall sentiment of households. Since households are important spenders, taxpayers and workers all baked into one type of economic unit, the growth rate of private consumption is the best quick-check “wellness test” of an economy. (A more detailed understanding of the shape of an economy obviously requires a more detailed macroeconomic and microeconomic analysis.)
Since I have recently reported on how the European economic recovery has not materialized, I figured it would only be fair to perform a quick-check macroeconomic “wellness test”. Alas, I pulled private consumption data from Eurostat, and I made sure to get inflation-adjusted figures based on a price that is relatively distant in time. (If the index year is close in time there can be growth distortions based on the mere proximity to “year zero”.) I also selected quarterly data, which is not commonly used for this purpose. My motivation, though, is that if the quarterly data is not seasonally adjusted it allows for a more frequent communication of household sentiments.
You would expect this type of data to be available from every EU member state for every quarter you might want it. I often encounter that attitude from consumers of public policy research: somehow they assume that every piece of statistical information anyone could ever want is readily available within two clicks into the internet. That is not the case, though, and the reason is simple. Quality statistical material requires careful data collection, according to detailed and very rigid collection methods; it requires methodologically rigorous processing according to standards defined not just for this piece of information, but for every comparable piece of information in the world.
There are other methodological restrictions on statistical information that contribute to the production cost. We should actually take this as a sign of quality for the data we have access to; I always get suspicious when scholars claim to have produced large sets of quantitative information in short periods of time – it often leads to bombastic conclusions that later prove to be little more than a house of cards built on clay feet.
Anyway. Back to the European economy. For reasons of high quality standards and therefore reasonably high production costs for national accounts data, not every EU member state reports the kind of consumption data analyzed here. Figure 1 below reports real private consumption growth in 24 EU member states from 2002 through 2013:
The growth rates, again, are inflation-adjusted rates per quarter, over the same quarter the year before. This means that the blue line reports a rolling annual growth rate, updated quarterly. As such it helps us pinpoint business cycle swings with good accuracy. The most obvious example is that private consumption nosedives in the second quarter of 2008: after having averaged an acceptable two percent per year from 2003 through 2007, private consumption literally came to a standstill over the next five years. From 2008 through 2012 the average growth rate was zero percent.
The difference may not seem like much, but for two reasons it would be wrong to draw that conclusion. First, a one-percent reduction in private consumption equals a decline in spending worth a bit over two million jobs in the EU-28 economy. This does not mean that two million Europeans automatically lose their jobs if households cut spending by one percent – the economy is more dynamic than that. But it does mean that if private businesses lose sales over a sustained period of time they cannot afford to keep all of their employees. At the macroeconomic level this eventually translates into, roughly, two million jobs per one percent private consumption (measured in current prices).
In other words, even seemingly small fluctuations in household spending can have major effects on the economy.
Secondly, sluggish private consumption means that the economy is not evolving. If the growth rate falls below two percent, then at least in theory consumers are no longer improving their standard of living. I explain in detail how this works in my book Industrial Poverty (out August 28); a very brief explanation is that it takes a certain level of sustained spending to maintain one’s standard of living. As products get better and other factors affect the quality of our consumption, we have to grow our outlays by a certain minimum rate just to make sure we keep our standard of living intact.
For the first half of the 12 years reported in Figure 1, households in the 24 selected EU member states managed to maintain their standard of living; on the other hand, for the second half of the period they did not maintain that standard. With an average growth rate of zero (adjusted for inflation) the theoretical loss of standard of living was two percent per year.
In addition to creating unemployment, this protracted sluggishness in household spending is a long-term prosperity downgrade for Europe’s consumers. What is even worse is that there are still no signs of a return to higher growth rates. While 2013 saw an average .8 percent growth in the EU-24 we discuss here, that came on the heels of ytwo years of negative growth (-0.6 percent). There was a similar, and bigger, uptick in 2010 (1.5 percent) that proved to be an anomaly compared to the two years before and after.
Furthermore, data for the first quarter of 2014, which is available for 20 of the 24 EU member states, shows a rise in inflation-adjusted private consumption in three countries only. While it is good to see a rise in Greece and Spain, which have been the hardest hit by the crisis (Austria is the third) this is far too isolated and far too small to be the turnaround many economists have hoped for.
More importantly, this is where the use of quarterly data can spook the careless observer. Spanish private consumption, which is up by 3.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, has a pattern of growing every other quarter. Since it was down 1.3 percent in the last quarter of 2013, this only means that the economy is on track with its historic path (which, sadly, means zero growth over the 16 quarters in 2010-2013). The rise in Greek private spending is part of a similar pattern, coming on the heels of a 2010-2013 average of -1.1 percent.
Bottom line, then, is that European households are unwilling or, more likely, unable to unleash that spending spree the European economy needs so badly. This should not surprise any regular reader of this blog, but it will in all likelihood be a surprise to those who live in the illusion that big government and the welfare state are the blessings that prosperity is built from.
I have explained on numerous occasions that the European economy is not at all in recovery mode. Jobless numbers are frighteningly bad, the long-term trend is still pessimistic, GDP growth is so slow that there is a credible deflation threat hanging over Europe, the OECD recently wrote down its growth forecast for the global economy, including the EU. All in all, Europe is a slow-motion economic disaster.
Now British newspaper The Guardian reports of yet another dark cloud over the European economy:
The eurozone’s fragile economic recovery suffered a setback in the first quarter after slower-than-expected growth. The combined currency bloc scraped together growth of 0.2% between January and March, in line with growth in the previous quarter but disappointing expectations of 0.4% growth.
This amounts to 0.8 percent for the entire year, which is deeply insufficient to turn around the European economy. The best you can say about this growth figure it is yet another indicator that my forecast of Europe being stuck in long-term stagnation is correct. This long-term stagnation is not a recession – it is a new era for the European economy.
There was a huge divergence in fortunes, with Germany growing at the fastest rate of all 18 countries, with gross domestic product increasing by 0.8%. It followed 0.4% growth in Europe’s largest economy in the previous quarter. The pace of recovery also accelerated in Spain, with growth of 0.4% outpacing a 0.2% increase in GDP in the previous three months.
I have explained before that the German economy is growing because of its strong exports. The gains from the exports industry do not spread to the rest of the economy, as is evident from paltry domestic spending figures for the German economy. The same is, in all likelihood, true for the Spanish economy, whose national accounts I will take a look at as soon as time permits.
When exports drive a country’s GDP growth, the country is not in a sustained recovery. The only way a sustained recovery can happen is if private consumption and corporate investments increase together. That is not yet happening in Germany, and it is certainly not happening in Spain.
At the bottom of the pile was the Netherlands, which suffered a shock 1.4% contraction in GDP, reversing 1% growth in the previous quarter. Portugal’s economy shrank by 0.7%, following growth of 0.5% in the final three months of last year. The French and Italian economies were also dealt a blow, with zero growth in France and a 0.1% contraction in Italy in the first quarter. It followed 0.2% growth and 0.1% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Stagnation, for short. And the only remedy that Europe’s political leaders seem to be able to think of is to print even more money, to saturate the economy with liquidity and to thus depreciate the euro vs. other major currencies. But with the Federal Reserve continuing its Quantitative Easing policy and the Chinese facing major problems in their financial sector it is entirely possible that the attempts at eroding the value of the euro will be neutralized by similar attempts from two of the world’s other major central banks. That in turn will put a damper on exports and rob the Europeans of even the illusion that their GDP will at some point start growing again.
At the end of the day, the fact that this negative news disappoints so many people in Europe is yet another indicator that my new book, Industrial Poverty, out in late August, is badly needed.
It is no secret to readers of this blog that Europe’s political leadership is entirely out of touch with the real life conditions that people live under in Europe. The reckless fiscal policies imposed on member states by the EU leadership over the past 4-5 years have damaged the living conditions and the future prospects of perhaps as many as 200 million people in Europe. In 19 EU member states, youth unemployment exceeds 20 percent, while in at least two it is between 19 and 20 percent. In 7 member states it exceeds 30 percent, with three countries – Croatia, Greece and Spain – seeing more than half of their young go unemployed.
This is nothing short of a social and economic disaster, unfolding in slow motion without much media attention. Sometimes, though, Europe’s political leaders get an attention spurt and decide that they want to do something about that disaster. The latest fad is some sort of “social protocol” that is supposed to monitor and (in theory) initiate policies against the worst exhibits of the unfolding disaster. Euractiv.com reports:
As the European Commission prepares to issue its first-ever social policy recommendations in the framework of the strengthened European Semester of economic policy coordination, there are lingering questions as to what the whole process will actually achieve, with critics branding it a “communications exercise”. As announced last October, the EU executive will publish its assessment by next month on five “key social indicators”, together with its usual macro-economic recommendations. Poverty, inequality, household income, employment rates and youth joblessness will all come under scrutiny as part of the social monitoring process.
So now, after five years of destructive austerity policies with higher taxes and spending cuts; policies that have driven unemployment to depression levels in many countries; after five years of trying to balance government budgets in the midst of sharply rising demand for poverty relief entitlements and tax base erosion; the EU now starts wondering how people are doing in Europe.
Back to Euractiv:
This “scoreboard for employment and social indicators” is one of the “new tools to build the social dimension of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU)”, the Commission says. It was launched in an attempt to strengthen the social dimension of the EMU as governments across Europe were feeling the backlash of austerity policies decided in the midst of the sovereign debt crisis. “The new scoreboard of key employment and social indicators shows that we have high income inequalities in some member states and the data also shows increase in the differences of income inequalities amongst the member states of the Eurozone, between the core and the periphery. Persisting and increasing socio-economic divergence is a problem for a monetary union,” said Laurence Weerts, who is responsible for the social dimension of the EMU in the office of László Andor, the EU Employment Commissioner.
There was a vast economics literature available back when they started planning the currency union, showing that the euro zone did not meet the criteria of an optimal currency union. It would have been easy for the Eurocrats to avoid the problems caused by putting together a sub-optimal currency union – all they would have had to do was to, well, keep the national currencies.
But more importantly, the depression-level social problems in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal would never have come about if the EU had not forced those member states to accept the EU-ECB-IMF version of austerity. Greece, as we know, lost one quarter of its GDP to austerity. One quarter. In the past six years unemployment in the 15-64 age group has tripled in Greece (it was 27.7 percent in 4th quarter of 2013) and Spain (26.1) and doubled in Italy (12.9) and Portugal (16.1). Youth unemployment, i.e., the age group 15-24, tripled in Spain (from 18.1 percent in 4th quarter of 2007 to 55.1 percent in 4th quarter of 2013), almost tripled in Greece (from 22.6 percent of 57 percent), doubled in Portugal (16.8 to 35.7) and almost doubled in Italy (23.2 to 43.5).
It is almost impossible to imagine that the EU leadership understands how their policies actually created this economic disaster. Yet, so long as they maintain their current policy priorities, where a balanced government budget is more important than any other policy goal, there will be no improvement of the situation for the perhaps 100 million Europeans whose livelihood critically depends on the welfare state. If instead the EU decided to get the welfare state out of the way, if they did away with the taxes that feed the welfare state and discourage entrepreneurship, they would quickly (by macroeconomic standards) see an improvement in the living conditions of those who are now on the dole.
However, that is probably not going to happen. The EU leadership is so stuck in its view of what is good and bad policy that its only idea of how to get the European economy going again is to depress wages. This, of course, means more people will depend on government just to survive the month. Euractiv again:
Belgian Green MEP, Philippe Lamberts, a member of the committee on economic and monetary affairs, welcomed the announcement in principle but says he doubts the recommendations will be taken into account. “I hope there will be country specific recommendations aimed at reducing inequalities. The problem is that they would be in contradiction with the usual Commission recommendations which say that we need to make the labour market more flexible, to reduce the power of social interlocutors, which clearly means putting a downward pressure on wages. If the Commission is to introduce recommendations to reduce inequalities, it would contradict itself,” Lamberts said. To really deliver on the social dimension, the Commission would need to “change directions” which “it won’t”, Lamberts said.
Two forces depress wages in Europe: high unemployment and large immigration of low-or-no skilled labor. Both forces are currently at work, which effectively means that Europe’s welfare states are going to get more clients. This in turn means that there is even less of a chance that Europe will be able to avoid a future in the economic wasteland where stagnation rules, people live in industrial poverty and there is no hope for a better future.
Think that can’t happen? Wait until late August when my book Industrial Poverty is out (Gower Applied Research). You will never see Europe the same way again.
Of all the countries around the world that have tried to embrace the European welfare state, Argentina is perhaps the most tragic example. From the 1920s through the 1950s the Argentine economy was one of the strongest in the world, and there were years when Argentina attracted more immigrants from Europe than the United States did. But what could have become a formidable economic powerhouse caved in to the ideas of the welfare state. As the economy began declining, social and economic stability evaporated and Argentina suffered decades of political turmoil.
The long-term suffering of the Argentine people, and of many other South American countries, is a stark warning to today’s Europeans: their continent could become the same tragedy in the 21st century that South America was in the last century. Unfortunately, the Europeans refuse to hear the warning bells from recent history, so we might just as well pile on yet another story, on top of the ones already published about the crumbling Argentine economy and what brought it down. This one is from Bloomberg.com:
Argentina reduced government subsidies on natural gas and water by an average 20 percent in a bid to narrow the largest fiscal deficit in more than a decade. The government could save as much as 13 billion pesos ($1.6 billion) and will use proceeds to cover utility company costs and finance social spending, Economy Minister Axel Kicillof and Planning Minister Julio De Vido said today at a press conference in Buenos Aires. The cuts won’t apply to industrial users.
And the reason for the big deficit?
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has boosted social spending since taking office in 2007 and left utility rates largely unchanged amid average annual inflation of about 25 percent, straining the finances of power distribution companies and leading to periodic blackouts.
If you live in California (which, thank my tax God, I don’t) you recognize this behavior. Back in the ’90s the state of California wanted to compassionately make sure that everyone could always pay their utility bills. So they regulated the price that utility companies could sell power for to households, but imposed no price regulations on the market where utility companies buy power from power producers. As a fourth-grader could have figured out, if the regulated price in the retail end was too low, on average utility companies would be buying power at a market price that exceeded the retail price they could charge.
The result? Rolling black-outs, no investments to improve either power production or power delivery, and in the end mounting costs for everyone in the back end when the entire power infrastructure needed massive upgrades anyway. (It did not help that California at the time was falling for the global warming delusion and chasing low-cost, fossil-based fuel out of the state.)
Now, Argentina finds itself in the exact same situation. But even more importantly, the Argentine government’s focus on entitlement spending is a stark parallel to Europe. Utility price regulation, which varies from country to country in Europe, is just another form of welfare-state intervention into the private sector. When coupled with the general plethora of entitlement programs that normally comes with welfare states, the subsidy becomes just another entitlement.
As Argentina demonstrates, this has consequences when government runs into fiscal trouble. Just like every welfare state the Argentine version combines spending determined by political preferences with revenues determined by a private sector, i.e., struggling entrepreneurs and tax-burdened consumers. Entitlement spending has a strong tendency to outgrow its revenues – in fact, I am working on an article for an academic journal defining a law that shows that welfare-state entitlement programs inevitably outspend their revenue – but politicians favoring the welfare state never realize that this is actually happening. Inevitably, therefore, they run into deficit problems, but since the politicians do not see this coming they are caught by surprise and react with fiscal panic.
There are three ways that fiscally panicking politicians can respond:
1. Buy time. This means, borrowing as much as they can. When they cannot borrow any more money by flooding the world with their Treasury bonds, they print money and have the central bank buy the Treasury bonds instead. If this happens in an economy with a stable financial system and a limited system of cash entitlements, the money printing will not cause high inflation. If on the other hand cash entitlements are comparatively important for daily consumer spending, then printing money to fund them opens a dangerous transmission mechanism for the money supply to cause high inflation.
2. Raise taxes. No longer a viable option, other than marginally. There is a fair amount of research that shows that voters in both Europe and North America grew tired of constantly rising taxes already back in the 1970s. Since then, an increasing share of the growth in government spending has been deficit-funded. The same is true in Argentina.
3. Cut spending. Since most politicians in our modern welfare states want to preserve the welfare state one way or the other, they do not want to eliminate entitlement programs. But when tax revenues do not grow as fast as they would want it to they are forced to downsize the welfare state to fit within a tighter revenue framework. This means chipping away at entitlements that people have gotten used to and based on which they plan their family finances.
For common-sense minded economists and politicians this means a good opportunity to prudently reform away the welfare state. “Just cutting spending, damn it” is not the way forward, but a structurally sound phase-out model can do wonders.
Leftists, on the other hand, go even deeper into panic. Bloomberg.com again:
Argentina, which has subsidized utilities since 2003, wants to cut aid from about 5 percent of gross domestic product to 2 percent of GDP and make higher income earners pay more for their utilities, Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich said March 12. “In 2003 the need for subsidies was clear,” Kicillof said in reference to the period after the nation’s $95 billion default and economic crisis. “Argentina isn’t ending subsidies, just redistributing them.” For Argentine households, the increase in their gas bill may rise as much as 161 percent for the biggest consumers and 306 percent for water bills, according to a presentation distributed by the Planning Ministry.
“The Planning Ministry”… Why not just adopt the Soviet acronym GOSPLAN and get it over with? Humor aside, though, it is worth noting that the families who are now hit with enormous price increases still have to pay the same amount of taxes as before.
The way out, again, is not to restore the subsidies. The way out is to end the entitlement programs and return purchasing power to the private sector so that those who have grown dependent on government can actually support themselves. This, of course, won’t happen in Argentina. What will happen there instead is that consumers now will respond by cutting spending elsewhere, thus reducing economic activity in general. This has repercussions for the tax base, which again will take government by surprise. And the entire process is repeated, with the difference that it starts from an already lower level of economic activity.
Europe is not in as bad a shape as Argentina is. But if they continue down the current path of using spending cuts and tax increases to save the welfare state in tough times, they will perpetuate their own crisis – and thereby perpetuate the need for spending cuts and tax increases.
The end station? An economic wasteland where children grow up to be poorer than their parents. That is, in effect, where Argentina is today, and has been for a long time. Sweden has been there for a good two decades and other European countries are beginning to see that same economic wasteland on the horizon.
There is an important reason for my projection that the European crisis is moving into a long-term stagnation phase: the Europeans are not willing to give up their welfare state. The welfare state caused the crisis, primarily by using taxes to deplete margins in the private sector and by using entitlements to discourage work and entrepreneurship. Eventually, all it took was a regular recession spiced up with some speculative losses in the financial industry, and the entire Western world was hurled into a deep and very persistent crisis. Unfortunately, the Europeans have not yet seen the light. (Perhaps they will when my book is out this summer.) Especially European voters are very persistent in demanding that the welfare state remains in place. This is particularly evident in a pan-European poll predicting the results in the May elections for the European Parliament.
That poll showed strong socialist gains among European voters. This is hardly surprising, given that the majority of Europe’s voters apparently believe that the last few years’ worth of austerity policies have been an ideological attack on the welfare state. In reality, it was a warped, economically stupid attempt to save the welfare state by making it fit inside a smaller, crisis-burdened economy. Higher taxes combined with spending cuts – in any combination – has the result of raising the burden of government on the private sector, hence to preserve the welfare state under tougher economic conditions.
As is well known, Europe has long history of fascination with socialism in various forms, from the light versions applied in assorted iterations of the welfare state to the full-blown totalitarian variant that plagued the Soviet sphere for decades. Generations of Europeans have grown up to a life in deep dependency on government. This is unhealthy anytime, anywhere, but it becomes economically dangerous in a crisis like the one Europe is now stuck in.
As if to compound the prospect of a collectivist victory in the May EU elections, the French socialists have launched a bold campaign to win a majority of their country’s delegation to the European Parliament. From Euractiv.com:
France’s ruling Socialist Party (PS) kicked off its European election campaign on Monday (3 March) with the ambition of securing the majority of French seats in the European Parliament, which is currently held by the country’s centre-right party, EurActiv France reports. At a press conference, the French Socialist Party’s first secretary, Harlem Désir, confirmed the Party of European Socialists’ (PES) ambition to take over the majority of seats in the EU Parliament and the job of EU Commission president. Europe, Désir said, “must turn the page of Liberal and Conservative governments, which for years have harmed the European dream. Their blind support to deregulation, widespread competition, fiscal and social dumping, has only led to austerity, unemployment and soaring populism across the continent.”
Yes, how horrible to deregulate markets so people and businesses have more choices. What a horrifying thought to let businesses compete with each other so the best one wins… I can’t wait until the socialists take over the Olympics. Imagine…
- In the 100 meter sprint, everyone has to get to the finishing line at exactly the same time. If someone gets ahead, the distance by which he won is taxed away and given to those who were last in the race.
- To assure there is no gender discrimination, the race has to perfectly represent the 50-something different genders that apparently exist in this world (of course, you’d have to expand the width of the race track accordingly…)
- In hockey, if a player scores a goal for his team he will immediately have to place the puck in his own team’s goal.
- Gymnasts can no longer be very thin and small. All sorts of women of all sizes must be given the exact same chance to participate, not to mention the same points, regardless of their performance.
Socialist Olympics – where everyone’s a winner!
Now back to the EU election and the Euractiv story, which reports that the socialists are eagerly trying to engage other parties in a debate between the candidates for the presidency of the EU Commission:
For the Socialists, the “presidential” debate is also an opportunity to equate the [liberal] EPP with the incumbent Commission’s results, notably on issues such as social dumping and crisis management. “We are starting in a European climate of sanction towards the outgoing team on the right wing, which led a policy of austerity, recession and stagnation on the economic and social plan,” said Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the campaign director for the EU elections.
This is actually an important point. By focusing so intensely on austerity throughout the crisis years, the incumbent EU Commission has indeed added fiscal insult to Europe’s macroeconomic injury. Ironically, their policies have expanded the presence of government throughout the economy by taking more from the private sector (higher taxes), giving less back (spending cuts) and depressing private consumption and business investments (higher taxes). In doing so, the commission has gone squarely against the purported ideological foundations of the conservative and liberal parties that have held a majority in the European Parliament since the 2009 elections.
In a matter of speaking, their deviation from their own ideological platform – their endeavor into statist territory – is now paving the way for “real” statists to take over.
And take over they will, says Euractiv:
According to estimates from the website Pollwatch 2014, the European Socialists and Democrats (S&D) would get 217 seats, while the EPP would get 200. The PS secretary general stressed that employment would be at the heart of the European campaign. “Jobs will be our priority,” said socialist MEP
Sounds good when you first hear it. So what do they want to do?
Catherine Trautmann, who took part in the press conference, mentioning the fight for a minimum wage at European level. To curb youth unemployment in particular, the PS secretary general has announced plans to strengthen the budget for the Youth Guarantee Scheme.
A minimum wage across Europe?? This is as ludicrous an idea as anything I have seen recently. What is it going to be measured against? Reasonably, it would have to be against some sort of benchmark, such as a fixed percentage of mean household income.
The problem with that – well, one of the problems with it – is that the benchmark would vary enormously from country to country. The way the European socialist party puts this idea it would be based on the same benchmark across the EU, which, using mean net household income would be 17,475 euros. Let’s say now that the minimum wage is 40 percent of that (a fraction sometimes used when calculating poverty ratios). This means that an average European household living on minimum wages would earn 6,990 euros.
Sounds fine and dandy, right? The problem is that the mean household income in seven EU member states are actually below this level. In Bulgaria and Romania the the minimum-wage level household income would be more than twice the mean household income.
In other words, an exquisite recipe for crashing the labor markets – the entire economies – of Europe’s poorer countries.
Apparently, this is not a problem for Europe’s socialists. Their next suggestion, as per the quote above, is more tax money to a government-run artificial-employment program they so aptly call “Youth Guarantee Scheme”.
It’s a scheme alright… But humor aside, the last thing Europe needs is more regulatory incursions, higher taxes and more people dependent on government. It will only cement the continent as an economic wasteland, stuck in permanent stagnation and industrial poverty.
There is an important reason for my projection that the European crisis is moving into a long-term stagnation phase: the Europeans are not willing to give up their welfare state.
The welfare state caused the crisis, primarily by using taxes to deplete margins in the private sector and by using entitlements to discourage work and entrepreneurship. Eventually, all it took was a regular recession spiced up with some speculative losses in the financial industry, and the entire Western world was hurled into a deep and very persistent crisis.
Unfortunately, the Europeans have not yet seen the light. (Perhaps they will when my book is out this summer.) Especially European voters are very persistent in demanding that the welfare state remains in place. This is particularly evident in a pan-European poll predicting the results in the May elections for the European Parliament. Reports EU Observer:
Europe’s socialists are set to top the polls in May’s European elections, according to the first pan-EU election forecast. The projections, released by Pollwatch Europe on Tuesday (19 February), give the parliament’s centre-left group 221 out of 751 seats on 29 percent of the vote, up from the 194 seats it currently holds. For their part, the centre-right EPP would drop to 202 seats from the 274 it currently holds on 27 percent of the vote across the bloc. If correct, it would be the first victory for the Socialists since 1994.
The last EU election was in 2009, before Europe’s voters had made much contact with the tough austerity measures that governments in EU member states have applied over the past few years. Those measures were actually used to try to save the welfare state – spending cuts and tax hikes recalibrated it to fit the deep-recession economy – but were in many cased received by a voting public as attacks on the welfare state.
Since 2009 there has been a voter backlash against austerity in several European elections, with Greece, Italy, Portugal and France as the best examples. Radical leftist parties have made a strong showing and, as in France, even scored major victories. This leftist momentum is now continuing into the EU elections. But voters’ desire to save the welfare state is not limited to the left. The EU Observer again:
Elsewhere, the poll projects a series of national victories for populist parties of the right and left in a number of countries. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is forecast to top the poll in France with 20 seats, while Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement would win in Italy with 24 seats. It also anticipates strong showings for parties in Belgium, Austria, Italy and Sweden and the Netherlands who have pledged to set up a new far-right political group with Le Pen, and are set to take a combined 38 seats.
The nationalist parties are essentially old-fashioned European social-democrats. They do not share the left’s Marxist class-warfare rhetoric against big corporations, but they also do not share the strong commitment to free markets that we libertarians cherish. Instead, they combine a re-packaged form of traditional European nation-state patriotism with redistribution-oriented policies adopted from the less extreme segments of the left. Unlike the radical leftist parties, the nationalists do not primarily blame the decline of the welfare state on austerity – they blame it on large immigration.
While few in the European political industry would ever admit this, it is an inescapable conclusion that the rise of socialists and nationalists paints a grim picture of Europe’s political and economic future. As mentioned, both flanks want to preserve the welfare state. Both flanks also share a disdain for libertarian free-market principles and policies, advocating various forms of statist government intervention into the economy. Radical leftists want to seize private property by nationalizing big corporations; nationalists want to regulate them heavily, and in some cases the regulatory incursions are difficult to tell apart from what the left offiers. A good example is Golden Dawn in Greece, whose hatred toward private,for-profit banking is secondary only to their hatred for non-European immigrants.
Since this poll reflects national election results, it is worth taking it seriously. This also means that we have to take seriously the potential, long-term political and policy consequences of that result. One of those consequences is that it will be even more difficult to educate the European public and their elected officials on the destructive role that the welfare state plays in their economy. (I am still confident, though, that my upcoming book will serve an important educational purpose here in the United States.) Since a socialist will likely become the next chair of the EU Commission – de facto the executive branch of the EU – we can rest assure that there is not going to be any change for the better in their policies.
On a somewhat more speculative note, the competition between socialists and nationalists could actually turn out to be a temporary phenomenon. Both flanks defend social collectivism and economic statism. As the second phase of Europe’s transformation into industrial poverty now unfolds – stagnation replaces depression – legislators both at the national level and in the European Parliament will fight increasingly tough battles over perennially scarce tax revenues. Dissatisfaction among voters will grow stronger over time. With youth unemployment at the 20-20 level (20 percent or more in 20 or more EU states) and with incomes stagnant, welfare-state entitlements cut or stagnant, and taxes remaining very high or even going up, the ground is getting more and more fertile for “political innovations”. One such possible innovation is the merger of socialist and nationalist movements.
Far-fetched? Maybe. But not farther than today’s Europe is from the Weimar Republic. It is up to the European electorate to decide how big that distance should be.