Archives for posts with tag: paul krugman

It only takes a cursory glance at the global press to see how the recent European elections have been viewed:

I don’t really have to translate der Spiegel to get the message across but it says: Why Greece must now leave the Euro.

Wow. So France elected a “dangerous” Socialist and Greece is going to leave the Euro. Not only that, the markets apparently believe that the sky is falling as well: (links here)

To summarize broadly the narrative that has come out of the press in the past week: European voters have rejected austerity, now the end (of the Euro) is near.

I want to go beyond that narrative though, there’s much more behind this “democracy interferes with a solution to the European crisis” than is being reported.

So lets start with the election of Socialist François Hollande. The Economist is a publication I hold dear most of the time; usually their articles promote a mostly centrist, albeit pro-globalization view. But there are so many problems with the Op-Ed piece on Hollande that I struggle to find merit in any of it. They malign him for not seeking to trim the size of the French state, while admitting that he seeks a balanced budget. And while they say that he “gets one big thing right” with his criticism of German-let austerity they posit that he isn’t doing it for the right reasons, as if intentions make a difference in modern electoral politics. (I’ll go into more detail on the German austerity program but to avoid being redundant here’s a relink a blog I wrote about it earlier). So The Economist was alarmed by the prospect of Hollande winning, what about the markets?

As you can see yields on French 10-year government bonds initially dropped before rising later in the trading week. But even at its current peak French bonds are still more highly valued than they were for most of the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s term, a less “dangerous” candidate.

But while Hollande’s ascension might have drawn criticism of The Economist, Greece’s electoral result was far less conclusive. While people viewed the Socialists rise with ambivalence, almost everyone has taken the Greek result as a sign of the volatility. From the BBC:

New Democracy was awarded 50 additional seats for coming in first place, but no party won even 20% of the popular vote in this election. It should also be noted that only PASOK and New Democracy supported continuing the bailout-induced austerity program. After four separate attempts to form a coalition, the parties gave up and planned a new election on June 17th. Current polls have the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza coming in first place with 22% of the vote.

While the potential for a Greek government that opposes austerity has rattled the markets, people should be equally concerned over what the response could be from Germany. Angela Merkel telephoned the interim leader of Greece and was reported to have suggested Greece should hold a referendum on its Euro membership, though Germany denies this was proposed. Greece would not be alone in seeing voters reject austerity: Italian local elections also saw supporters of austerity get voted out. And while not facing an election, Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy said that the country would breach the deficit targets imposed by the so-called Fiscal Pact led by Germany.

I’d like to expand the often cited “fiscal pact” for a moment here. The EU treaty now called the fiscal pact was signed at the beginning of March 2011, it stipulates that signing nations must not run a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP or they will be fined. The fiscal pact has been maligned by many (Joseph Stiglitz even called it a suicide pact) but the treaty was enacted in order to fix a real problem inside the Eurozone.

Unlike the United States, where both our currency (monetary policy) and the national budget (fiscal policy) is set by the federal government, the EU only has direct control over the currency (the Euro). This causes many complications, of these the most well understood has been a competitiveness problem in certain European countries. Countries like Italy and Spain gave up a competitive advantage when they joined the Euro by giving up their cheaper local currencies. A way of offsetting this was to lower the borrowing costs for new members to help eliminate the competitiveness problem without devaluing the Euro currency itself. The problem now is that 10 years after the creation of the Euro, the competitiveness gap still exists.

This is not unique to Europe; in the US we also have a competitiveness gap between US states. Poorer US states like Kentucky, Mississippi, and West Virginia take in much more than they pay into the IRS, while states like California get considerably less back. This translates into long term transfers of wealth from competitive parts of the country to less competitive ones; Europe lacks this redistributive mechanism. At the same time, because the federal government issues bonds on behalf of all 50 states, the fiscal insolvency of one state (say California) is not exposed to the wrath of the markets. In other words, the risk between US states is mutualized by the federal government. Europe currently lacks both of these tools to stymie the crisis.

This brings us back to issue of democracy and the European economic crisis. While some countries have voted in opposition to the austerity drive, German voters have their own reservations on many proposed solutions to the crisis. According to a poll in November 2011, 79% of Germans oppose a European Bond that would combine sovereign debt from Germany with other Euro members. Germans are similarly opposed to any inflation outside of what they view as acceptable. A poll from an insurance company (R+V) asked Germans what their most pressing fear was: last year inflation topped the list with 63% of respondents listing it. These views have been reflected by German policymakers  as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble denied that Greek bailouts would result in any transfer union in Europe. German opposition to inflationary policy at the ECB has also been pronounced. While some of this stubbornness has changed over time, policymakers still have an obligation to follow the wishes of their citizens or face potential defeat in elections.

Right now the “strategy” to resolve the Eurozone competitiveness problem involves cutting deficits across the EU and relying on “internal devaluation” caused by austerity and falling prices in the most troubled economies (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy). Unfortunately this process takes a very long time and has put many of the troubled economies into recession. This process is also complicated by German opposition to inflation, as higher inflation in Germany would help make the troubled periphery more competitive.

In the end, the problems affecting the Eurozone will probably require a combination of both austerity measures over time in some countries as well as some form of debt mutualization and fiscal transfers to less competitive countries. This is, of course, just to stymie the medium to long term imbalances facing the Eurozone. In the short term the EU has very dire questions to answer: is the current strategy sustainable, can the Eurozone survive a Greek exit, would it be worth it to tolerate countries rejecting austerity if the alternative was a disorderly departure from the single currency? Above all, can the Euro survive the challenge democracy presents to resolving its many problems?

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After months of mental stagnation I’ve decided to return to the world of blogging with an extra spergy post on the economic policies being considered on both sides of the Atlantic. Before I expand on this subject I want to send a special thanks to economist bloggers Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Matthew Yglesias for inspiring me. I absolutely don’t belong in the same category as them but I feel so much better informed by their blogs. For anyone looking to learn a little bit more about economics or economic theory I highly recommend following these blogs. For additional perspectives from economists you should also consider the blogs referenced in this compelling economist article.

The topic for this post will be the economic policies that are currently being considered in both the European Union and the United States. Before I go further I want to define two terms that I will be using a lot in this post:

Austerity: “In economics, austerity is a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided.[1] Austerity policies are often used by governments to reduce their deficit spending[2] while sometimes coupled with increases in taxes to pay back creditors to reduce debt.[3]” (from wikipedia)

Expansionism: “some have linked the term to promoting economic growth (in contrast to no growth / sustainable policies).” (also from wikipedia)

While some time has passed since the debt ceiling standoff and subsequent downgrade by Standard and Poor rocked US markets, the debate remains central to US economic policy. In recent Republican debates austerity has been almost universally endorsed. Governor Rick Perry went  so far as to propose eliminating three government agencies, though which three is still up for debate. This stance on austerity has also been endorsed by Republicans in Congress, with multiple proposals to reduce government spending in the short and medium term.

Across the Atlantic, similar proposals have not only been proposed but have been implemented in several countries that were affected by the Eurozone debt crisis. Germany’s Angela Merkel has been one of the most ardent proponents in the Eurozone for an austerity-centered response to debt crisis. The economist states:

Italy and Greece, under new technocratic governments, may now be more serious about living within their means and reforming their faults. France, which has run budget deficits since 1974, is adopting austerity. Spain has introduced a constitutional debt brake.”

In both Europe and the United States austerity has been proposed as a solution to the risk of bond market action on sovereign bonds. I think it is critical to understand a few key elements of what this “bond market action” implies here. When governments seek to borrow money, they auction sovereign bonds denominated in the currency used by those respective governments. Governments then have to pay back those bonds with interest. This interest is called the “yield” and has an inverse relationship to demand for those bonds. So if a bond is in high demand, the yield will be low, while a bond with low demand will have a higher yield.

Ratings agencies, which represent the interests of bond-buyers will give ratings on sovereign bonds based on how likely they think they will be repaid. Even though a nation’s sovereign debt rating can be related to its yield, the two don’t always correlate to one another.  When the United States lost its AAA rating from Standard and Poor (the other two major ratings agencies kept the AAA for the US) stock markets lost record volume but demand for US sovereign debt actually went up. As I write this the yield on US 10-year bonds stands at 1.89%, while it stood at 3.01% on July 20th, 2011.

While 2% is considered serviceable, higher yields can cripple a country by forcing it stop borrowing altogether. Greek 10-year bonds have yields more than ten times higher than their US or German equivalent:

At present, Greece would have to pay 34% interest on a ten year loan. This has effectively locked Greece out of selling its debt. It would seem natural then, that the countries that are now bailing out Greece would insist that Greece cut government spending sharply and try to raise more taxes to cut its deficit. After all, if Greece were able to finance its spending without having to borrow money, yields wouldn’t matter, at least in the immediate term. Germany, the biggest Eurozone economy, has led the push for austerity in Greece and other Euro countries with dangerously high yields (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland have all faced high yields).

There is a danger to this logic though, that comes with the effects of austerity. In return for the first bailout, Greece agreed to sharply reduce public spending, including cuts in pensions and wages for public sector workers, yet it still fails to meet deficit targets set by the EU. Germany is now proposing that the EU take direct control over Greece’s government spending, something deeply unpopular in Greece (source). The problem that comes from this arrangement is that austerity has not let to growth in Greece’s economy. In fact, since the first bailout in April 2010, Greece has seen its economy contract sharply:

This is as troubling as this looks, it easily could have been predicted. When you lower spending like Greece has done, you are in effect giving public sector workers/pensioners less money to spend, lowering demand. This weakens economic output across all sectors of the economy, as private businesses adjust to lowered demand by laying off workers and producing less. This does more than just damage the livelihoods of Greek citizens, it actually exacerbates the government’s finances. As Greece’s tax base becomes less wealthy, the government must either raise taxes further (which certainly does not stimulate growth) or continue to run a budgetary deficit just to maintain the status quo.

Greece is not alone in its struggle to grow as the effects of austerity bite, other Euro countries that have recently implemented austerity have seen growth slow:

This graph measures annual GDP growth in the Q3 2011, and with the exception of Slovenia, all of the worst performers had to implement some form of austerity in response to high yields/EU intervention.

It is not just the opinion of amateur bloggers (like me) or angry protesters in Greece that austerity alone cannot ensure debt repayment. Standard and Poor recently downgraded 9 Eurozone countries, and in its FAQ explaining the downgrades stated:

… As such, we believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.”

The German response to the downgrade borders on intransigence:

German chancellor Angela Merkel has called on eurozone governments speedily to implement tough new fiscal rules after Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit ratings of France and Austria and seven other second-tier sovereigns.”

This is especially swaying because ratings agencies like S&P have no vested interest in placating debtor states, but instead act on behalf of creditors. Fears over German stubbornness over austerity has led to a recent outpouring of criticism from the world’s economic leaders. IMF head Christine Lagarde, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Financier George Soros all warned of dangers of austerity at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos. At a separate summit, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that Germany was pushing Europe towards a suicide pact, saying:

It is like blood-letting, where you took blood out of a patient because the theory was that there were bad humours. and very often, when you took the blood out, the patient got sicker. The response then was more blood-letting until the patient very nearly died. What is happening in Europe is a mutual suicide pact

It’s worth noting that Stiglitz had similarly critical things to say about US austerity, pointing out that the US has shed 700,000 public sector jobs over four years. While European austerity has been rightly criticized for its futility, it must be pointed out that Eurozone countries have faced something that the US has not, high yields. One of the most baffling aspects of the aspects of the recent push for austerity across the Atlantic is that, while the US has lost its AAA rating by S&P, its yields have stayed historically low. While it makes little sense for Greece to endure agonizing economic contraction from austerity, it makes considerably less sense for the United States to follow that path. While borrowing costs for the US government are historically low, unemployment remains stubbornly high.

It should be both shocking and perplexing that in spite of this Republicans in Congress have held up virtually every piece of expansionary legislation recently proposed. Republicans have been so opposed to promoting growth through legislation that they nearly blocked a tax cut designed to boost growth from being renewed until they came under intense political pressure and relented.

On both sides of the Atlantic there has been a drive for austerity that has hitherto done little to calm the markets OR promote growth. And while countries with high yields have faced inevitable pressure to reduce deficits, the real tragedy stems from the lack of leadership from countries with the room for maneuver to lead and coordinate expansionary policies. The political systems in Germany and the United States have both been alarmingly inflexible and wrong-footed in their respective approaches to promoting economic growth and stemming the threat of double dip recession.