Tagged: Macroeconomics

Bad Economic News, Part 1

Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra coined the proverbial phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”. That is certainly true about the European economic crisis. This past week saw a crop of bad news from the Old World. Nothing very dramatic – and certainly nothing that should surprise regular readers of this blog – but nevertheless bad news. In this first of two parts, let’s look at a report from the EU Observer:

The eurozone appears to have come back onto the markets’ radar amid low inflation, poor economic news from Germany, and Greece’s bailout exit plans. Greece’s long-term borrowing costs went above 8 percent on Thursday (16 October) – their highest for almost a year – as investors took fright at the fragile political situation in the country. The government in Athens has tried to shore up popular support by suggesting it will exit its bailout programme with the International Monetary fund more than a year early.

There is an important background here. The bailout program had three components:

1. The Greek government will do everything in its power to combine a balanced budget with protecting as much as possible of its welfare state against the economic depression;

2. In return for the Greek government’s tax increases and spending cuts, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank provided loans that kept the Greek government afloat cash-wise;

3. The only metric used to measure the success of bailout policies is the stability of a balanced government budget.

If GDP did not grow, if unemployment was at 30 percent, if more than half the young in Greece had no job to go to… none of that mattered. As a result, there has been no structural improvement of the Greek economy; government has not reduced its burden on the private sector – quite the contrary, in fact. Welfare systems have been reduced, but higher taxes have prevented welfare recipients from transitioning into self sufficiency.

As a result, the social situation in Greece is almost unbearable. The political reaction has come in the form of a surge for parties on the extreme flanks of the political spectrum. In my book Industrial Poverty I explain in detail what happened in Greece, what brought the country down from the heights of European prosperity to permanent stagnation. Today, sadly, the country is little more than a macroeconomic wasteland.

It is with this in mind that one should approach the news that Greece is considering leaving the bailout program. The coalition government is under enormous pressure to save the nation itself, to keep parliamentary democracy in place and to inject some sort of life into the economy. If they fail either of two extreme political movements will take over – the Chavista communists in Syriza or the Nazis in Golden Dawn.

International investors know this and are understandably scared. In their mind the bailout is the least of available evils; in reality, as I explain in my book, the attempts at balancing the budget and saving the welfare state in the midst of the crisis are the very policies that keep Greece from recovering; weak signs of a minor recovery earlier this year have yet to materialize into anything other than the “beaten dog” syndrome often following protracted periods of austertiy.

This is the very reason why Greece is now considering leaving the bailout program. They cannot continue forever to try to muddle through with an economy deadlocked in depression and a democracy so fragile that it has brought the first Nazis into a parliament in Europe for the first time since World War II.

However, as the EU Observer explains, the Greek government is caught between a rock and a hard place – as are other hard-hit euro zone economies:

But the recent announcement spooked investors, unconvinced that Greece can stand alone. Long-term borrowing costs also jumped in the weak periphery states, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The market jitters – while not comparable to the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 and 2012 – come as the eurozone’s main economies are once again at odds over policy responses.

France also belongs on that list, primarily for its typically European attempt at leaving the bailout program. Its government tried to leave the bailout path for a left turn into the quagmire of government expansionism. Thinking that more government spending, on top of the largest government spending in the world, could in fact bring about a recovery, the French socialists who won the 2012 elections scoffed at the EU balanced-budget rules and went full speed ahead with their government-expansionist agenda.

Two years later that agenda has hit a brick wall. Massive tax increases, supposed to pay for some of the new government spending, have only resulted in an exodus of brain power and entrepreneurship. The French GDP is standing more still than the Eiffel Tower.

In fact, the EU Observer notes,

France and Italy are fighting a rearguard action for more flexibility saying budget slashing will condemn them to further low growth. Paris is on collision course with both Berlin and the European Commission after having indicated that it wants an extra two years to bring its budget deficit to below 3 percent of GDP. Italy, meanwhile, has submitted a national budget for 2015 which brings the country to the edge of breaking the rules.

The French challenge to the budget-balance rules compounds the uncertainty emanating from the talks in Athens about a Greek bailout exit. It is more than a theoretical possibility that at least one of these countries leaves the euro zone in the next two years, and does so for a combination of political and economic reasons. That would be an institutional change to the European economy – and really the global economy – of such proportions that no traditional quantitative analysis can render justice to a forecast of its effects. It is therefore entirely logical that global investors are growing more uncertain and as a result demand higher risk premiums.

As the icing on the uncertainty cake, informed investors know that Marine Le Pen may very well become France’s next president. If she wins in 2017 her first order of business is in all likelihood going to be to exit the euro zone and reintroduce the franc. On the one hand that could be an “orderly” exit; on the other hand it would have ripple effects throughout the southern rim of the euro zone to the point where the very future of the common currency is in grave danger.

In summary: mounting uncertainty about the future of the euro is being mixed with growing uncertainty about the macroeconomic performance of the member states of the currency union.

Stay tuned for the second part about the bad news out of Europe.

Spanish Growth An Exports Bubble?

At the beginning of this year there were lots of forecasts that the European economy was going to recover. I never believed them, primarily because government was a bigger burden on the economy than ever. So far I have been proven right, which is not something I would want to celebrate. But I also want to make clear that once government pulls back from its efforts at balancing its budget with higher taxes and spending cuts, the private sector will eventually start to recover.

There is a lot of research to show this. I review the public policy part of that research in chapter 5 in my new book Industrial Poverty. My conclusion is that this kind of austerity can work – the private sector emerges growing from even the most protracted periods of austerity. However, this is not a reason to use austerity as it has been applied through most of recent history, namely as a means to save government. Instead, austerity must be redesigned to reform away government. Otherwise the private-sector recovery that follows will suffer from two ailments:

1. It will look fast in the beginning, as consumers catch up with the standard of living they lost during the austerity period; and

2. Because of the recalibration of the welfare state – permanently higher taxes and permanently lower spending – the economy will hit its full employment level at a higher rate of unemployment than before the austerity episode.

It is also important to keep a watchful eye on whether or not a recovery is external or internal. In too many European countries over the past quarter century, a recovery has come from a rise in exports, i.e., been external. The consequence of this is that the domestic economy lags behind.

To make matters worse, much of modern manufacturing in Europe consists of bringing in parts produced in low-cost countries, assembling them at a highly efficient plant in a European country and then shipping them on to their final destination. This new kind of industrial production is increasingly isolated from the rest of the economy, which means that its multiplier effects on private consumption and business investments is relatively weak. It is, in other words, no longer possible for a small, exports-oriented European country to enter a lasting growth period merely on a rise in exports.

Earlier this year I pointed to Germany as an example of the feeble macroeconomic role of exports. You can get a temporary boost in GDP growth from a rise in exports, but once that boom goes away, it will have left very few lasting “growth footprints” in the economy. It looks like the same thing is now happening in Spain, which is in a recovery, according to the ECB:

The economic recovery has gathered momentum during 2014, with GDP growing at a faster pace than the euro area average.

Going by the latest national accounts numbers from Eurostat, which for obvious reasons covers only the first two quarters of 2014, it was not until Q2 this year that Spanish GDP outpaced the euro zone: 1.1 percent real growth over the same quarter previous year, compared to 0.5 percent for the euro zone.

Before that, Spain was doing worse than the euro zone by a handsome margin.

The ECB again:

Growth has been supported by a rise in domestic demand, while the external balance has weakened substantially as a result of a slowdown in export market growth and higher imports. Domestic consumption and investment in equipment are benefitting from growing confidence, employment creation, easier financing conditions and low inflation.

Over the past year there has been a slow but steady decline in Spanish unemployment, from 26.1 percent in August 2013 to 24.4 percent in August 2014. That is very good for a people hit very hard by disastrously ill designed fiscal policies over the past three years.

At the same time, there are clear signs that this is an “export bubble”. Consider these growth numbers for the country’s GDP (quarterly over same quarter previous year):

SPAIN 2013Q3 2013Q4 2014Q1 2014Q2
Real GDP -0.6 -0.1 0.7 1.1
Private cons. -1.2 1.1 2.1 2.2
Exports 3.7 3.2 6.4 1.5
Investments -5.4 -2.4 -0.7 0.6
Government 0.5 -3.7 0.5 1.0

There is no doubt that GDP growth is improving. While 1.1 percent is absolutely nothing to write home about, as mentioned earlier it exceeds the euro-zone average. The big question is whether or not this improvement will last. The biggest concern is the exports numbers: good growth for two quarters, then a major leap up to 6.4 percent, only to fall back to 1.5 percent. (While these are not seasonally adjusted numbers, they are quarterly growth on an annual basis which neutralizes seasonal effects.) If exports fall back to tepid growth numbers below two percent, GDP growth will most likely slide back into zero territory.

However, there are a couple of other mildly encouraging factoids in these numbers. To begin with, government spending, while on the growth side, is expanding slowly at no more than one percent per year. This number does not account for financial payments, such as unemployment benefits and other income security entitlements, but they do account for government activities that involve government employees. Alas, restraint in government spending means very little effort from government to expand its payrolls to do away with unemployment.

The apparently stable growth in private consumption is in all likelihood attributable to the post-austerity effect I pointed to above. This means that we will not see 2+ percent growth for much longer; for that to happen there has to be a sustained and substantial addition of consumers to the economy who are capable of spending more than what is required for pure subsistence. This, in turn, will not happen until unemployment comes down more than marginally.

Another mildly encouraging sign is that business investments have stopped declining. The turnaround over the past four quarters is in all likelihood an attempt by exporters to expand their capacity. If the exports boom is coming to an end, so will probably investments.

To turn this fledgling recovery into a lasting trend, the Spanish government needs to address the underlying problem in its economy: the welfare state. Otherwise it will just experience spurts of growth here and there as anomalies to a permanent state of stagnation – and industrial poverty.

In Search of Economic Leadership

The global economy is gradually becoming more disparate. The United States and Japan are pulling ahead while Europe is in a permanent state of stagnation and China is likely going to experience its first, real industrialized recession ever.

In this structurally changing world there is a need for thought leadership, both nationally and globally. We have institutions that, at least to some degree, where created for that purpose. The International Monetary Fund is a good example. Unfortunately, the IMF is not taking a lead, echoing instead much of the same analysis and arguments heard from the national governments whose macroeconomic ineptitude created this long crisis in the first place.

A good example of the Fund’s attitude is put on display in a new report where the managing director of the IMF notes that:

the IMF’s World Economic Outlook had trimmed its growth forecasts for the global economy. “In the face of what we have called the risk of a new mediocre, where growth is low and uneven, we believe that there has to be a new momentum and that is what we will be discussing with the membership in the coming days. “This new momentum—with, hopefully more growth, more jobs, better growth, better jobs—is certainly something we would call on the membership to produce,” Lagarde declared.

So what is the IMF’s idea on how to get the world economy growing again? Well, Lagarde said…

the IMF has noted growing country specificity in its analysis, where within each group of economies some countries are progressing and others are lagging behind. She said the IMF recommends action in three particular areas. Monetary policy where, particularly in the euro zone and Japan, more accommodative monetary policy is needed going forward to support the economy.

This is actually the wrong recipe. Europe is already profusely accommodating with a stretched-to-the-limit monetary expansion totally unbecoming of what the founders of the ECB had in mind. Accommodation policies are in fact so bad that the euro zone is now over-saturated with liquidity and interest rates on bank overnight lending have gone negative.

None of this has helped. There is no sign on the European horizon that real-sector activity has picked up. Instead, it looks very much as though Europe has now entered its own version of the Japanese decade. After almost 15 years of a combination of stagnation, deflation and liquidity saturation, the economy has now finally entered a recovery phase. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the very protracted monetary expansion period put a lid on real-sector activity, precisely the opposite of what was intended.

The mechanisms that brought about the Japanese decade were those that Keynes specified when he defined the liquidity trap. The mechanics of the trap are important, but a topic for a separate article. What is important here is that IMF managing director Lagarde no doubt disagrees with the Keynesian analysis and, despite lack of evidence in her favor, suggests that yet more liquidity supply would get the European economy going again. That does not bode well for the Europeans.

But what about fiscal policy? Well, says the report,

more growth-friendly measures can be put in place as outlined in the IMF’s latest Fiscal Monitor that called attention to fiscal policies adjusted to support job market reforms.

No word about the need for lower taxes, more reforms promoting private deliveries on government promises. No word on how structurally over-bloated welfare states have put an unbearable burden on the welfare state in the vast majority of the world’s industrialized nations.

The IMF should be a thought leader on these issues. Instead, it has become a service organization for countries that have become stuck in a permanent state of anemic growth, recommending 20th century solutions to 21st century problems.

A Japanese Recovery

Last week I mentioned Japan in an article about France. Quoting an article from Forbes Magazine I made the point that Japan has been stuck in the liquidity trap for a very long time, and that the inflation the country is now experiencing is of the dangerous, monetary kind. The Japanese story illustrates why it is so dangerous for Europe to try to get out from underneath a perennial recession by aggressively expanding money supply.

The lesson for Europe stands firm: printing money when there is no demand for that money is a thoroughly bad idea, and Japan is a good example of why. From the time the Japanese deflation era started, in the late ’90s, the growth rate in the money supply accelerated. This went on for most of the next decade and a half; coincidentally, starting in the late ’90s Japan experienced almost 15 years of deflation.

It is, in other words, safe to warn the Europeans that massive expansion of the money supply will not break deflation. But it is also important to acknowledge that Japan is now showing signs of leaving deflation behind, just as the Forbes article suggested.

The problem is that the new Japanese inflation is not of the kind that Forbes suggested. I quoted the article and took its point as given – it referred to a side point in my article and therefore I accepted the conclusion of what looked like a credible source. But I also had an unrelenting feeling that I needed to look into the veracity of the point from the Forbes story. After all, if Japan had suddenly gone from deflation to inflation without an underlying upturn in real-sector activity, there would be a big case for studying the transmission mechanisms that channeled all that extra liquidity into prices.

In other words, it would have been a historic opportunity for monetarists to prove that their theory of inflation is actually true. It would be “true in the long run”, a 15-year long run, but it would nevertheless be true.

As I started digging through national accounts data it turned out that Japan is not at all entering an era of monetary inflation. The push upward on prices originates in the real sector: production, consumption and gross fixed capital formation (business investment).

Figure 1 reports inflation-adjusted growth in GDP (all data reported below is from Eurostat):

JP 1

Japanese GDP growth exhibits some volatility, but since 2011 the trend is closer to the American economy than the euro zone.

Figure 2 reports private consumption growth:

JP 2

Here the trend is actually fairly good for an economy that has been stagnant for almost two decades. It is still nothing to cheer about – Japan, like the United States, cannot break the Industrial Poverty line of two percent. But at least Japanese consumers are out there spending money, which is far more than you can say about their peers in the depressed euro zone.

Figure 3, finally, tells the story of business investments:

JP 3

This is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that the Japanese economy is in recovery mode after 15 years in the economic wasteland. Growth rates in corporate investments are not ecstatically high, but they are the best since the mid-’90s. Again, activity in the Japanese economy is showing the same modest but real recovery tendency as the American economy.

Normally, growth rates around two percent should not even come close to driving inflation. However, with 15 years of stagnant business investments there is very little excess capacity in the economy. Add to that a shrinking work force and the capacity ceiling is lower in Japan than in many other economies.

So there you have it. Japan is leaving the shadow realm of stagnation and deflation. The real sector is recovering, and with production capacity adjusted to stagnation, not growth, excess-demand inflation sets in earlier than in, e.g., the United States. Not to mention Europe.

The Japanese deserve kudos for their apparent return to growth. Let us hope they keep it up.

Consumers Drive U.S. Recovery

On Friday I reported that the European Central Bank has downgraded its growth forecast for the euro zone. This wraps up a summer of bad economic news from Europe, all together showing that there is no recovery under way. At the same time, as I have explained in a series of blogs elsewhere (Ode to the American Economy, parts one, two and three), the United States continues its sleepwalk out of the Great Recession.

The differences between the U.S. and EU economies are striking. A review of the most recent Eurostat quarterly national accounts data shows that the American economy is not only outgrowing its European counterpart, but it is also in the healthier position of being dominated by consumer spending.

Let us begin with GDP growth (using the single-currency euro zone as the proxy for Europe):

LB 9814 GDP

Over the past 20 years for which Eurostat provides quarterly, inflation-adjusted data, there are three episodes where the United States outgrows Europe. The first episode was the heydays of the ’90s, when our unemployment was trending below four percent. Europe was struggling with twice as high unemployment rates and, in fairness, the remaining issues with Europe’s reunification. That said, with the right fiscal policies the 18 current euro-zone countries could easily have enjoyed the same forceful growth as the U.S. economy was producing.

The second episode of faster U.S. growth comes between the Millennium and Great Recessions. Many would attribute this to the housing bubble, and I am inclined to agree to some extent. However, it is important not to forget the Bush tax cuts, which in two phases – 2001 and 2003 – created a one-two punch of multiplier and accelerator effects on economic activity.

Unfortunately, this was also a period of excessive federal spending. The U.S. government grew its budget by 6.7 percent per year, on average, from 2001 to 2009, with the heaviest spending growth allocated to the latter half of that period. Indirectly, this drew resources away from private-sector growth, which partly explains the weakening of GDP growth from the top in early 2004.

As for Europe, the bump in growth right before the Great Recession is not easily explained. As shown in the two charts below, neither consumption nor exports were strong enough to produce that bump.

The third episode of American dominance is the one we are in right now. Amazingly, at a GDP growth rate mostly below 2.5 percent per year, we are leaving Europe in the dust. The difference is easily explained: after the serious dip early in the recession, U.S. fiscal policy has basically been neutral, with only marginal movements in taxes and spending. In fact, after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama has been the fiscally most frugal president since before Reagan. The states have also held back their spending, and even though most states still struggle with budget problems the overall trend in taxation is weakly in favor of lower taxes.

From this viewpoint the American economy has actually for the most part benefited from the Congressional deadlock and President Obama’s passion for playing golf. Our federal government is doing the American economy a favor by doing nothing. It would of course, be better if they cut taxes, reformed away entitlement programs and deregulated, but in lieu of that it is better that they continue to do nothing while we go about our business and slowly bring this economy back to something that resembles full employment.

Europe, on the other hand, is continuing to suffer from years of government-saving austerity. Their tax hikes and spending cuts have been motivated by a desire to keep as much as possible of the welfare state through the Great Recession, with little or no regard for what happens to the private sector. The European people and their businesses are now paying the price in the form of almost zero growth, eleven percent unemployment and a grim outlook on the future.

Adding insult to this national-accounts injury, the next chart shows the role of private consumption in each of the two economies:

LB 9814 Cons

There is a simple way to show the importance of private consumption in an economy. Subtract GDP growth from the growth rate of private consumption per period observed, in this case quarters. Sum up the difference per period and divide by the number of periods. If the resulting number is negative, it means that GDP grows faster on average than private consumption; if it is positive the opposite is true. An economy where consumption grows at least as fast as GDP is an economy where the consumer is the key economic agent, where he enjoys a high degree of economic freedom and where, therefore, the free market is a major player in the rest of the economy. In a consumption-drivene economy, the dominating end purpose of productive economic activity is to win over consumer spending on a free market, hence private businesses have to operate as free-market entities as well.

The U.S. consumption growth ratio is 1.3, meaning that for the period observed here, private consumption growth exceeds GDP growth by 1.3 percent per quarter, on average. By contrast, the euro-zone economy has a ratio of -0.7, showing that growth is driven by other variables than private consumption.

Is that “other variable” exports? Let’s take a look:

LB 9814 Exports

Interestingly, since the Millennium Recession there has been no major difference in the growth rate of U.S. exports and exports from euro-zone countries. The growth rates are high, especially compared to GDP growth, which means that for the slow-growing euro-zone economy the exports sector has helped keep growth up. This explains why GDP in the euro-zone countries outgrow their own private consumption, but since strong exports growth does not translate into household spending (if it did, private consumption would grow on par with exports) this means that the euro-zone economies are increasingly dependent on foreign markets to grow at all.

With its strong private-consumption growth, the U.S. economy has a big leg up on the European economy. We are, simply, a domestically dominated economy and are much less vulnerable to ups and downs of the international business cycle. Europe’s GDP, on the other hand, basically stands and falls with spending on other continents.

Furthermore, with as big a government sector as the Europeans have, their austerity policies which raise taxes – thus diminish the private sector – and cut government spending actually depress GDP in two ends.

The compounded effect on GDP is, as shown here, rather depressing. Pun intended.

ECB Weakens EU Growth Forecast

Analysts are grasping for explanations of why the European economy has once again stalled. The European Central Bank, which has lowered its forecast for GDP growth in the euro zone, suggests that this weakening is not part of a trend, but an aberration from a trend:

First, activity in the first quarter was subject to an unusual upward effect from the low number of holidays (as the entire Easter school holiday period fell in the second quarter) and from the warm winter weather that had boosted construction. Neither of these upward effects in the first quarter was sufficiently captured by seasonal or working day adjustment. As they unwound in the second quarter, this dampened growth. Second, negative calendar effects related to the more than usual number of “bridge days” around public holidays in many euro area countries may have reduced the number of effective working days in May, a factor that was not captured by the working day adjustment.

I have a lot of respect for the macroeconomists at the ECB, but frankly, this is below what we should expect of them. Calendar days and weather always vary – some claim that the bad performance of the U.S. economy in the first quarter of this year was due to the unusually cold winter. In reality, that growth dip was more than likely the result of businesses trying to adjust to the impact of Obamacare. By contrast, the slow growth numbers in the European economy are part of a trend of economic stagnation. A 30,000-foot review of what the European economy looks like is a good way to become aware of that trend.

The profession of economic has to some degree drifted away from the bigger-picture thinking that characterized its earlier days in the 20th century. While econometrics is important, there is too much emphasis on it today, drawing attention away from longer, bigger trends and the kind of institutional changes that characterize Europe today. Based on this broader analysis, my conclusion stands: Europe is not going to recover until they do something fundamental about their welfare state. Or, more bluntly: so long as taxes remain as high as they are and government provides entitlements the way it does, there is no reason for the productive people in the European economy to bring about a recovery.

The problem with short-sighted, strictly quantitative analysis is that it compels the economist to keep looking for a reason why the economy should recovery, as if it was a law of nature that there should be a recovery.

This problem is reflected in the ECB forecast paper:

Regarding the second half of 2014, while confidence indicators still stand close to their long-term average levels, their recent weakening indicates a rather modest increase in activity in the near term. The weakening of survey data takes place against the background of the recent further intensification of geopolitical tensions (see Box 4) together with uncertainty about the economic reform process in some euro area countries. All in all, the projection entails a rather moderate pick-up in activity in the second half of 2014, weaker than previously expected.

It would be interesting to see the results of a survey like this where the questions centered in on the more long-term oriented variables that focused on people’s ability and desire to plan their personal finances. I did a study like that as part of my own graduate work, and the results (reported in my doctoral thesis) were interesting yet hardly surprising. When people are faced with growing uncertainty they try to reduce their long-term economic commitments as much as possible. This results in less economic activity today without any tangible commitment to future spending.

Since I do not have the resources to study consumer and entrepreneurial confidence in Europe at the level the ECB can, I cannot firmly say that people in Europe today feel so uncertain about the future that they have permanently lowered their economic activity. However, my survey results corroborate predictions by economic theory, and the reality on the ground in Europe today points in the very same direction. In other words, so long as institutional uncertainty remains, there will be no recovery in Europe.

The ECB does not consider this aspect. Instead they once again forecast a recovery, just as assorted economists have done for about a year now:

Looking beyond the near term, and assuming no further escalation of global tensions, a gradual acceleration of real GDP growth over the projection horizon is envisaged. Real GDP growth is expected to pick up in 2015 and 2016, with the growth differentials across countries projected to decline, thanks to the progress in overcoming the fragmentation of financial markets, smaller differences in their fiscal policy paths, and the positive impact on activity from past structural reforms in several countries. The projected pick-up in activity will be mainly supported by a strengthening of domestic demand, owing to the accommodative monetary policy stance – further strengthened by the recent standard and non- standard measures – a broadly neutral fiscal stance following years of substantial fiscal tightening, and a return to neutral credit supply conditions. In addition, private consumption should benefit from a pick-up in real disposable income stemming from the favourable impact of low commodity price inflation and rising wage growth.

A key ingredient here is “smaller differences in … fiscal policy paths” and “a broadly neutral fiscal stance”. This means that the ECB is expecting an end to austerity policies across the euro zone, an expectation that has been lurking in their forecasts for some time now. But austerity has not ended, nor have the budget deficit problems that brought about austerity. The austerity artillery is not as active now as it was two years ago, but it has not gone quiet. France, e.g., is currently in a political leadership crisis because of the alleged need to continue budget-balancing measures.

France also indicates where the fiscal trend in Europe is heading. If the radical side of the French socialists could have it their way they would chart a course back to big-spending territory. But they would also couple more spending with even higher taxes, in order to avoid conflicts with the debt and deficit rules of the EU Stability and Growth Pact. While technically a “neutral” policy, the macroeconomic fallout would be a further weakening of the private sector – in other words a further weakening of GDP growth.

Another aspect that the ECB overlooks is the effects of the recalibration of the welfare state that has taken place during the austerity years. I am not going to elaborate at length on this point here, but refer instead to my new book where I discuss this phenomenon in more detail. Its macroeconomic meaning, though, is important here: the recalibration results in the welfare state taking more from the private sector, partly in the form of taxes, and giving less back in the form of lower spending. As a result, the private sector is drained, structurally, of more resources, with the inevitable result that long-term GDP growth is even weaker.

None of this is discussed in the ECB forecast paper, which means that we will very likely see more downward adjustments of their growth forecasts in the future.

There would be no problem with the ECB’s erroneous forecasts if it was not for the fact that those forecasts are used by policy makers in their decisions on taxes, government spending and monetary supply. The more of these “surprising” downward corrections by forecasters, the more of almost panic-driven decisions we will see. Alas, from EUBusiness.com:

The European Central Bank cut its forecasts for growth in the 18-country euro area this year and next, and also lowered its outlook for area-wide inflation, at a policy meeting on Thursday. The ECB is pencilling in gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 0.9 percent in 2014 and 1.6 percent in 2015, the central bank’s president Mario Draghi told a news conference. “Compared with our projections in June, the projections for real GDP growth for 2014 and 2015 have been revised downwards,” he said. The bank said inflation was expected to be 0.6 percent this year — a lower rate than the 0.7 originally forecast, Draghi said.

And therefore, the ECB decided to cut its already microscopic interest rates. Among their cuts is a push of the overnight bank lending rate further into negative territory, so that it now stands at -0.3 percent. But all these measures, aimed at injecting more cheap credit into the European economy, will fall as flat on their bellies as earlier interest-rate cuts. The problem is not that there is not enough liquidity in the economy – the problem is, as mentioned earlier, that the European economy suffers from institutional and structural ailments. Those are not fixed with monetary policy. Yet with the wrong analysis of the cause of the crisis, Europe’s policy makers will continue to prescribe the wrong medicine and the patient will continue to sink into a vegetative state of stagnation and industrial poverty.

Deflation and Economic Theory

In economics, a lot of academic research is focused on high-end sophisticated quantitative methods. Many economists who work in public policy consider such research more or less useless. I agree only to some extent. There is a lot of technically advanced research that informs us in the interface between politics and academia. Right now, e.g., I am reading highly technical and theoretical research in price theory for a paper that develops new policy applications.

That said, the technical experts in economics have run away with the discipline. Far more resources are spent on advanced mathematical research and sophisticated statistical methods than can ever be merited by real-world applicability. This technical overkill has led to two problems in the practice of economics: econometricians make errors in forecasting and economists ignore problems that do not easily lend themselves to high-end technical analysis.

The more I read of economics literature, and the more time I spend in the public policy interface of politics and economics, the more convinced I am that economics needs a thought revolution. I find myself relying on erstwhile thinkers and basic macroeconomic theory developed early in the 20th century, because I have had much more use of it than more modern, less theoretical research.

One example of where I find the basics very useful is in the understanding of why there is such a difference in inflation patterns in Europe and the United States. While U.S. inflation is slowly trending up toward two percent, Europe is moving steadily into deflation territory. From The Guardian:

Eurozone inflation fell to its lowest level in almost five years in July, bringing the threat of a dangerous deflationary spiral closer. The annual rate of inflation fell unexpectedly to 0.4% from 0.5% in June, dragged lower by accelerating falls in food, alcohol and tobacco prices. Energy prices also fell sharply, by 1%, compared with a 0.1% rise in June. It was the lowest level of annual inflation since October 2009, when prices were in negative territory.

I have warned about deflation several times. It is not hard to predict deflation in Europe:

1. Government consumes 40-50 percent of the economy;

2. Austrian theory explains how government misallocates resources, thus lowers overall economic activity;

3. When the recession hit in 2008-09, growth was already so weak that the European economy lacked the resiliency needed to recover;

4. Austerity, designed to save the welfare state, has further depressed private-sector activity, just as Keynesian theory predicts;

5. More recently the ECB has flooded the euro zone with money in a desperate attempt to revive business investments;

6. Since austerity has left the private sector more heavily taxed, with even weaker support from government, businesses and consumers are even less inclined to spend money and take on new loans than before austerity;

7. When real-sector activity is depressed, the monetary sector cannot revive economic activity even when it pushes private-sector loan interest rates into negative territory, as the ECB has done.

No matter how hard the ECB tries, it is not going to restart the European economy. Instead, it has firmly planted the euro zone in the liquidity trap where monetary policy is useless.

As for inflation, the only kind that Europe could see in this situation is the monetary kind. That is important to keep in mind, especially since there is probably a widespread desire for inflation among Europe’s political leadership. There, inflation is considered a blessing because it drives up tax revenues. But monetary inflation would have such detrimental consequences for the economy that nobody should sit around and wish for it to happen.

I honestly believe that Europe’s politicians and central bankers share that thought – they want real-sector driven inflation but unlike their peers in the United States they don’t know how to get the real sector going.

The Guardian again:

Peter Vanden Houte, chief eurozone economist at ING, said the threat of eurozone deflation was likely to persist. “[July's] figures don’t give any assurance that the eurozone is already out of the deflation danger zone,” he said. … The fear is that weak price pressures could ultimately trigger a dangerous deflationary spiral, where consumers and businesses damage their domestic economies by putting off spending amid expectations that prices will fall further still.

Exactly right. Both Keynes and the Austrians point to this, in different forms. But more importantly, the first thing you need to do when you are in a liquidity trap, on he verge of deflation, is to quit printing money. Deflation and growing money supply reinforce the depression effect of deflation itself. When liquidity is abundantly available, and prices of what you would buy with that liquidity are falling, you may borrow the money, but you put it in the bank. As prices continue to fall, your liquidity gains in net value; if the net gain exceeds the interest rate (not hard when interest rates are practically zero), you make money off borrowing and not spending.

I borrow $100 today to buy a bicycle. The interest rate is one percent and deflation is two percent. Tomorrow I pay one dollar to the bank but only $98 for the bike. I can use an extra dollar in “profit” toward paying back the loan. The longer I wait with buying the bike, the larger my “profit” will be. In other words, I have a speculative incentive to depress economic activity further.

If the interest rate is higher than deflation, I will borrow the money but buy the bike it immediately. The only way, though, that the interest rate can go up is if the ECB tightens liquidity supply in the euro zone. That, however, won’t happen any time soon. The Guardian reminds us of how the ECB took the euro zone into negative interest rate territory:

Policymakers at the European Central Bank (ECB) took action in June to stave off the threat of deflation and breathe some life into the currency bloc’s flagging economy. The main interest rate was cut to a record low of 0.15% and a €400bn (£317bn) package of cheap funding for banks was announced, with the condition that the money be used to lend to companies outside the financial sector, and not for mortgages. The ECB also announced it would in effect charge banks to deposit money, by imposing a negative rate of interest of -0.1% on deposits. The hope is that it will encourage banks to lend more to consumers and businesses, boosting the wider economy.

Fortunately, the ECB has announced that it will hold off on further monetary “stimulus” for now. Perhaps the weaker euro, which the Guardian also mentions, will inject a little bit of import-price inflation into the European economy. That would weaken the deflation trend, but it is unlikely that it will do enough to lift the euro zone our of the liquidity trap.

Overall, economic theory and the current course of the European economy together suggest that the continent’s economy is going to continue its journey into the shadow realm of deflation and permanent stagnation.

In the meantime, the U.S. economy will continue to grow, with a healthy dose of low, real-sector driven inflation. The differences between the eastern and western shores of the Atlantic Ocean will also continue to grow. The sharp contrast emerging will be one between thriving free-market based capitalism and stagnant welfare-state based socialism.

Take your pick.

Comparing U.S. and EU Economies

When the good news came about the second-quarter GDP growth in the American economy, some commentators used the relatively low jobs number of 209,000 to make a case that the economy is not at all very strong.

If the spending growth that drove the GDP number were of a more transitional nature, then I would agree with them. But as I explained on Wednesday, the numbers indicate strengthening confidence among consumers and entrepreneurs. It is very likely, therefore, that this is a sustainable recovery.

Not a perfect recovery, but a sustainable one. We should be happy for it. After all, things could be much worse.

We could be Europe.

Just like us, the Europeans took a beating in 2009 when the Great Recession began. Both the U.S. and the EU economies saw unemployment rise rapidly. Deficits swept through government budgets.

On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, politicians made the wrong choices. The Obama administration and Congress thought massive government spending could save the day. As a result, we got the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 but had to wait until 2012 for the recovery to begin.

In Europe, political leaders took to a statist version of austerity in order to save the welfare state from disastrous budget deficits. The outcome was thoroughly bad: while the ARRA “only” delayed our recovery, the European economy actually went into an even deeper recession.

The contrast is clearly visible in Figure 1, which reports the difference in inflation-adjusted growth between the U.S. economy and the EU. Blue columns show how much higher (or lower) the U.S. GDP growth rate was compared to the EU. Grey columns show the growth difference for private consumption:

RFC LB joint blog

Some facts:

  • In nine of the 13 years covered the U.S. economy outgrew Europe;
  • American consumers increased their spending faster than European consumers in 12 out of 13 years;
  • On average consumption growth was twice as fast in America as in Europe, 2.12 percent per year compared to 1.07 percent per year.

There are other differences. Our unemployment rate is 6.2 percent; theirs is 10.3 percent. Our youth unemployment rate is trending down; theirs is basically stuck. Our federal deficit is declining while GDP is growing; the EU economy is barely growing and deficits are frustratingly persistent.

Those who complain that is not a perfect recovery should keep in mind what a perfect recovery would require: a perfect tax policy, perfect downsizing reforms of government spending and perfect deregulation.

We have none of that, so let’s celebrate the recovery we have. It is not that bad.

And as Europe reminds us, we could be stuck in an economic wasteland where the only future to hope for is one in the stagnant life of industrial poverty.

Methodological note: The GDP numbers reported in the attached chart are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (the U.S. economy) and Eurostat (the EU). In both cases, GDP growth is reported in chain-linked, inflation-adjusted prices. The base year for the U.S. data is 2009 but 2005 for the EU numbers. This difference would normally preclude a comparison. For example, the apparent strength of European growth from 2005 to 2009 could be a statistical anomaly caused by the base year difference. However, due to limited availability of national accounts products from Eurostat, these two time series were the best comparison objects. The short time span covered is also dictated by limitations of the Eurostat database.

American Economy Growing Stronger

There is good news today from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which reports that U.S. GDP…

increased at an annual rate of 4.0 percent in the second quarter of 2014, according to the “advance” estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the first quarter, real GDP decreased 2.1 percent (revised). The Bureau emphasized that the second-quarter advance estimate released today is based on source data that are incomplete or subject to further revision by the source agency

This is good news, indeed, even with the caveat that there will be revisions to the number by the end of August when more complete data has been processed. As a reminder of how big those revisions can be, consider that the estimates for the first quarter of this year ranged from -2.1 to -2.9 percent. That was an unusually large margin of error. Early estimates, like this four-percent growth figure for the second quarter, are based on limited data and matched with forecasting models that “fill in the blanks”. Those models, in turn, are based on historic trends in industrial activity throughout the U.S. economy. When real economic activity deviates from long-term, historic trends – either because of a protracted recession or because of an ongoing structural change to the economy – the part of preliminary GDP estimates that comes from forecasting models is suddenly more uncertain.

In a nutshell, while there is an underlying trend of recovery, that trend is not strong and confident enough to yield highly accurate preliminary GDP estimates. But even if there is an unusually large downward adjustment of this figure, we are still going to have satisfactory growth going in this economy.

So what is behind this good GDP news? Back to the BEA news release:

This upturn in the percent change in real GDP primarily reflected upturns in private inventory investment and in exports, an acceleration in PCE [private consumption], an upturn in state and local government spending, an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment, and an upturn in residential fixed investment that were partly offset by an acceleration in imports.

In other words, the BEA sees an across-the-board increase in economic activity. This is very good, even though we could have done without the rise in state and local government spending. However, once the more complete numbers are out in about a month, there will be opportunity for a detailed examination of the actual growth drivers. However, the BEA gives some hints:

Real personal consumption expenditures increased 2.5 percent in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.2 percent in the first. Durable goods increased 14.0 percent, compared with an increase of 3.2 percent. Nondurable goods increased 2.5 percent; it was unchanged in the first quarter.

The rise in durable-goods consumption is particularly notable, as it is often associated with long-term spending or financing commitments by consumers. This could actually indicate a deeper, more lasting trend of growth, driven by strengthening consumer confidence. If so, we will see much more of GDP in the 3-percent growth bracket. That would be highly welcome, especially since the average GDP growth for the U.S. economy in the 2000s barely exceeded an inflation-adjusted 1.5 percent per year.

But before we all jump up and down with joy, keep in mind again that growth in the first quarter was a solid negative 2.1 percent. I attribute that, at least in part, to the uncertainty around Obamacare. Businesses have now adjusted to it, consumers are absorbing the cost and accommodating to it. That does not mean Obamacare has not had negative effects on the economy; wait and see what happens to health care costs, employment in the health sector and spending on medical technology.

Another indicator that the economy may be on a reinforcing rebound is the 5.3-percent increase in non-residential construction, an indication that businesses expect activity to grow on a long-term basis. Business equipment investment corroborates this, with a solid seven-percent growth (it decreased in the first quarter). Residential construction growth was even stronger, at 7.5 percent.

All in all, what has been a tepid recovery looks better today. A couple of key variables indicate reinforced confidence among consumers as well as businesses. If the Obama administration sits still and does nothing, they will make the best contribution possible to this. No more big spending programs, please. (Let’s not forget that Obama has been more fiscally conservative than any recent Republican president, Reagan included.) If Republicans take the Senate in November, there will be even more reasons to believe in a sustained recovery.

In addition to continued growth in jobs and earnings, a solid trend of growing GDP will also reduce the risk of monetarily driven inflation in the United States. From this perspective it is particularly reassuring that consumer spending on durable goods is growing, as is spending on both residential and commercial construction. All these activities rely heavily on credit, and that includes, of course, the mortgages needed to buy new homes. Excess liquidity that has been slushing around in the U.S. banking system will now go to work where it is needed.

This particular aspect of the recovery is usually under-estimated by economists. Let’s briefly compare our situation to what is happening in Europe. There, too, business credit is growing, but not for the same reason as here. EUBusiness.com reports:

Banks in the eurozone eased credit standards for loans to businesses in the second quarter for the first time since 2007, the European Central Bank said Wednesday. Announcing the upbeat results of its quarterly euro area bank lending survey, the ECB said it had also become easier for private households to get loans as confidence returned to the sector.

This is nonsense. The EU economy may be breaking into positive growth numbers, but it is closer to one than two percent annually. The best evidence of this is a very slow growth rate in private consumption. This is not enough to shore up confidence and make people crowd to the banks, desperate for loans. The same is true for businesses, whose investment growth is nowhere near American levels.

Instead of a desperately needed real-sector recovery, the increase in lending in the euro zone is a direct effect of the negative interest rates that the European Central Bank has introduced on bank over-night deposits. This measure, which de facto marked Europe’s entry into the liquidity trap, penalizes banks if they deposit excess liquidity to accounts with the ECB. Faced with a penalty from the ECB, banks have apparently decided to aggressively market loans to businesses and households.

The fact that they decide to lower credit standards right away, right as they start their loan marketing campaign, is a good indicator of cause and effect in this: if households and businesses were recovering solidly from the Great Recession, they would qualify for loans at existing standards; the fact that banks have to lower credit standards in order to sell loans to customers means that the aggregate credit profile of the European bank customer has not changed recently. That in turn means that people and businesses make roughly the same amount of money, have approximately the same employment and sales outlook on the future, and that job prospects and markets are not growing.

In other words, without the ECB’s negative interest rate and without banks lowering credit standards, there would be no increase in bank lending in Europe.

Because there is no recovery, an increase in lending to the private sector could result in monetarily driven inflation. More on that some other time, though. For now, let’s celebrate yet another U.S. macroeconomic victory over Europe.

An Institutional Analysis of the Crisis

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:

LB 7 28 14 2

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.