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Epilogue: The Euro as Historical Hubris

10. February 2014, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

The euro is many things at once. Like all other currencies, it is a means of payment, a unit of account and a store of value. Since its inception, it is an attempt to challenge the hegemony of the US dollar as world currency. Insofar as it embodies the transfer of monetary and exchange rate policy from the national to the European level, it is a major step in the process of European integration – albeit one increasingly regarded as ill-advised and out of sequence. But it is also, and somewhat more prosaically, an especially fixed fixed-exchange-rate system – and in that sense, it is also an exercise in historical hubris.

During the course of the 20th century, there have been three major attempts at setting up fixed exchange rate regimes involving significant portions of the advanced capitalist world. The first one was the gold standard of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which fell apart as a consequence of the outbreak of World War I (as the warring parties felt compelled to adopt expansionary policies in order to finance the cost of war), was resurrected in the mid-1920s, and finally collapsed again as it confronted the structural crisis of the late 1920s and 1930s (otherwise known as the Great Depression). This final undoing of the gold standard was a protracted affair: while Britain and the countries of the so-called ‘sterling bloc’ left as early as 1931, others lingered on until 1938. In historical hindsight, we now know that those countries that abandoned the fixed-exchange-rate regime earlier did a much better job at overcoming the Great Depression (see Figure below, taken from here). Little wonder, then, that the experiment was doomed to fail sooner or later.


The second major experiment in fixed-exchange rates was the one adopted in the context of the post-1944 Bretton Woods system, in the context of which currencies were pegged to the US dollar, which in its turn was convertible into gold at a fixed rate of US$35 per ounce. It remained in place until the Nixon shock of 1971, whereby the suspension of the convertibility of the US dollar did away with the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate system and replaced it with a freely floating currency regime. The proximate cause of its downfall was the US government’s need to finance the Vietnam War, but the deeper underlying cause was the structural crisis of the 1970s (which in fact began to make itself manifest in the late 1960s) and its constraining effect upon profitability, output and fiscal revenue.

And so we get to the third major experiment in fixed exchange rates of the 20th century: the euro, with its predecessor the EMS. The predecessor itself came undone as it confronted the minor crisis of the early 1990s, but still the experiment was carried forward, in a sense through raising the stakes and pressing ahead, in the form of the euro. Then followed the structural crisis of the late 2000s and 2010s – and the rest, well, the rest is history being made as we speak.

Each major fixed-exchange-rate regime experiment of the past 150 years has been undone by each of the structural crises which swept advanced capitalism. Expecting the euro to resist the current structural crisis, at a time when that crisis has scarcely begun to be overcome, while reacting through ever-more-deflationary policies that only exacerbate that crisis, is what I call a fair amount of hubris. A Greek tragedy, as it were.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

2013: A Year in the Crisis

15. January 2014, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

So here we are in 2014. As this edition of the Euro Crisis blog draws to a close, it is time to say farewell to the readers and greet the new contributors who will take over and comment on the Euro zone crisis as it develops from here on in. Farewells are also an appropriate time for stock-taking exercises, however, so I think it is appropriate to end my contribution by reviewing what the latest year has meant for the bigger picture of the Euro crisis – at least the way I see it. What progress has been made in the various fronts? And how much closer are we to a resolution of the crisis?

Perhaps not surprisingly, my views are considerably less optimistic than those of most other analysts, many of whom seem to consider that the worse of the crisis is largely behind us. I, on the contrary, believe that we are still far from hitting the bottom, let alone from a resolution. And I also believe that we end the year 2013 in a worse position that we started it.

First, take the superficial element of the crisis: the sovereign debt levels of the eurozone countries. (Superficial in the sense that, as I and many others have argued before, they are a consequence, not a cause, of the crisis.) Between the second quarter of 2012 and the same quarter of 2013 (the latest for which Eurostat has available comparable data), in a context of widespread austerity, absolute public debt levels increased in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain. That is to say, in every single eurozone country except for Germany and Latvia. As a percentage of GDP, government debt increased in all 18 eurozone countries except for Austria, Germany and Latvia – including to such remarkable levels as Greece’s 169%, Portugal’s 131%, Ireland’s 126% and Spain’s 92%. Not quite unexpected given the obviously recessive consequences of austerity, but certainly not a sign of progress towards a resolution: greater debt levels mean a greater burden constraining the possibility of counter-cyclical fiscal policy (particularly with the Fiscal Compact in place) and, at least in the Portuguese and Greek cases, a greater amount which will not, for it cannot, be repaid (whether this be through haircuts or sovereign defaults).

More significantly, though, the more fundamental economic variables which encapsulate the nature of the crisis have either deteriorated or remained unaltered during the course of 2013: the massively negative external debt, or international investment position, of the peripheral Euro zone countries (the ‘divergence’ component of the crisis) remained basically unaltered, save for some marginal improvement in the case of Ireland. As for the overall economic performance (the ‘stagnation’ element of the crisis), the outlook also continues to be profoundly depressing: annual GDP growth in the euro area as a whole in 2013 is estimated at -0.4%, while euro area unemployment remains at a record 12.1%. At the same time, the constraints weighing down on that performance have not alleviated: the deleveraging of the private (household and corporate) sector remains to be done, while the spectrum of deflation is an ever-more-present possibility, further worsening the debt overhang and giving rise to recessive debt-deflation dynamics.

At the political and institutional levels, we now have a Fiscal Compact in place which has basically banned counter-cyclical fiscal policy at a time when monetary policy has become well-nigh ineffective; a ‘banking union’ which has not broken the vicious links between troubled banks and troubled sovereigns; a minuscule EU budget slashing all hopes of a recovery led by counter-cyclical policy at the European level; unrelenting insistence on austerity as supposed way out; discontent with the European project growing steadily across the EU; the far right increasingly showing its ugly head as it takes advantage of the European leaders’ incapacity or unwillingness to address the real root causes of the crisis; and a full-fledged humanitarian crisis in large swathes of the European periphery. Hardly grounds for optimism.

Having said this, it is no doubt true that the eurozone crisis has changed its character during the course of 2013: in contrast to earlier on in the year, we no longer experience the crisis as a series of acute episodes, in which the possibility of a dénouement is just around the corner. Instead, we have entered a largely chronic stage, with neither collapse nor improvement in sight. A significant indicator in this respect consists of the interest rate levels on sovereign debt throughout the eurozone: even though the economic outlook has continued to worsen, interest rates, particularly in the eurozone periphery, have fallen significantly over the course of 2013, thus alleviating one of the most acute dimensions of the crisis. By and large a continuation of the ‘Draghi effect’ (the ECB’s manifest willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent defaults in the Euro zone, provided that austerity remains in place), but unintelligible without taking into account the extent to which resistance to austerity has so far failed to materialise at the political level (thus rendering this deleterious low-level political-economic equilibrium much more stable than it seemed 12 months ago).

But this equilibrium will not last, for austerity and deflation are exactly the key ingredients of permanent recession in our current debt overhang situation – and sooner or later the electorate, in at least one of the more chastised countries, will prefer default and the possibility of a euro exit, for all their risks, to the certainty of perpetual impoverishment. In 2013 the crisis turned into chronic stagnation, but we should not let ourselves be fooled by this apparent calm: it only takes one card to bring the house down.

May you have a happy 2014, dear reader – and in these times of crisis, may Europe and its peoples live up to the lofty democratic ideals which the continent has spawned throughout its history.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Too Much Trust in EU Institutions

9. January 2014, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

The general impression is that the EMU zone (which gathers countries belonging to, or potentially belonging to, the euro) suffers from a crisis of trust. How can we move forward with European integration when people lack trust in EU institutions? The facts may however be quite different: there is too much trust in the EU institutions and too much trust in the reform capacities in the EMU countries.

The guiding rule for EU-leaders has been to restore trust in the EMU and to get economic growth in the EU back on track. Many steps are being taken to rebuild trust ranging from fiscal compact and banking union, to measures to increase the relevance of subsidiarity. Overall, these measures and the fight for trust will – optimistically – lead to deeper integration.

However, the EMU zone may not suffer from a lack of trust. Paradoxically, this is bad news. First of all, there is generally more trust in EU institutions than in national institutions. Over the past few weeks, I sat in meetings with senior officials and politicians from different parts of the EU. On the question whether they would like to see the EU institutions take over economic tasks and develop into an EU economic government, the answer was decidedly ‘yes’. According to the responses, national institutions (including central banks), have been the cause of the economic and banking problems.

This trust in EU institutions is in accordance with the Eurobarometer which indicates that the people in 17 euro countries have (much) more trust in EU institutions than in their national governments. The bottom of the list with trust in national governments shows euro countries Spain (8% trust national government), Greece (9%), Slovenia (10%), Portugal (10%) and Italy (11%). Other countries with low national trust and higher trust in EU institutions include France (only 24% trust national government) and Ireland (18%).

The consequence of this situation is that there is not so much a lack of trust in the EU (and the related euro institutions) but a national trust crisis – and EU institutions are trusted to manage national economies. If the discussions of the past week are anything to go by, there is a majority of countries in the EU that would like to see the development of stronger European economic governance because they are themselves too weak to run their own economies. In the words of a minister from a country preparing for joining the euro: “the Commission can better decide what is good for us”.

The second reason why there is not a lack of trust in EU institutions is that the EU seems to suffer from traditional over-optimism. Judging by the hope that the EU is better in taking economic governance decisions than national governments closer to their voters, this over-optimism still exists. Greece, Portugal and East European countries were allowed into the EEC/EU. Similarly, accession into Schengen also proved quite easy. Membership was assumed to lead to reforms. In the same vein, despite an argument between monetarist and economic governance economists, euro membership was granted ahead of economic reforms, trusting that membership would do the trick. Hence, the EU has been gambling with economic history based on naïve trust in EU reform mechanisms.

Thirdly, countries have been trusted to be flexible and to develop. However, the French competitiveness index fell from 15th position in 2000 to 22nd in 2013. Italy’s competitiveness eroded as underlined by the drop from 24th position to 49th. Greece managed a slight but hugely painful improvement from 33rd to the 31st position.

Deeper integration is on the agenda. The EU Council meeting of December 2013 concluded additional steps towards banking union and economic contracts. The basis of the economic governance, however, remains a collection of mostly week states; states that seem to have given up managing their own economies and that place their hope in the EU. The EU might as well be doomed with this trust in the EU to solve national reform problems.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

A Not-So-Surprising Accession

9. January 2014, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

On January 1st, 2014, the day on which the euro had its 15th birthday, Latvia became the 18th member of the eurozone. This accession was prepared over many years and Lithuania is scheduled to follow in 2015, but still this will have come as a surprise to many. Given the predicaments to which eurozone members, and especially the more peripheral and economically-fragile ones, have been subjected to in the last few years, one would imagine eurozone exits to be more likely than eurozone accessions. And yet here we have Latvia proving just the opposite. So what are we to make of all this?

Let us begin by rewinding the tape a few years. Latvia was hit by a severe financial crisis in 2008, as a consequence of the bursting of a credit bubble. In its core, the mechanism was not dissimilar from those which affected most crisis-ridden countries of the eurozone periphery: an inadequate exchange rate (in the case of the Latvian lats, due to its peg to the euro since 2005) giving rise to a mismatch between external economic competitiveness and financial-market inflows and a gradually inflating bubble leading to an inevitable bust triggered by the Global Financial Crisis.

Like the crisis-ridden countries of the eurozone periphery, Latvia requested, and was given, a bailout package (worth €7.5Bn) by the EC-ECB-IMF troika. Quite unlike the peripheral eurozone countries, however, Latvia did have a significant margin to choose between two alternative courses of action when it came to responding to the crisis: given that it had not actually adopted the euro, but merely pegged its currency to it, the choice between internal and external devaluation was a real one. Thus, the Latvian government of the time could perfectly well have abandoned the ERM II mechanism, devalued the lats, undertaken external stabilisation in a way which ensured that the cost of adjustment was borne by the whole of society, and subsequently pursued counter-cyclical fiscal policies. Instead, it chose internal devaluation: keeping the peg and having the overwhelming cost of adjustment be borne by workers through the reduction of ‘labour costs’. The class dimension of this choice is not difficult to see: between having everyone pay (through devaluation-induced inflation) and having workers and the popular classes pay (through wage cuts and austerity measures such as school and hospital closures), the Latvian government chose the latter. And it did so with more than a little cynicism, by attempting to suggest that this choice was made out of social considerations.

Now, we cannot say for sure what would have happened had Latvia made the alternative choice. What we do know, however, is what the selected course of action brought about: a 24% drop in GDP, including a drop by 17.7% in 2009 alone; an increase in unemployment from 8% to 18% in 2008-2009; and the emigration of about one-tenth of the labour force. What the ‘austeritarian’ camp hails as one of its greatest success stories (because of the subsequent recovery: 5.5% in 2011, 5.6% in 2012) is arguably anything but: six years into the crisis, Latvian output remains below the pre-crisis level, unemployment remains at 11% despite mass emigration, poverty and inequality have increased, social services have been slashed, and the demographic fallout of mass emigration will only be felt in earnest further down the road.

What is most interesting to note, then, is that the Latvian government was in a much better position to avoid the social pains of austerity than the countries of the eurozone periphery but nevertheless chose not to do so – and it chose not to do so because what seems like a dysfunctional choice from the point of view of society as a whole, is in fact a perfectly rational course of action from the point of view of particular vested interests. From the standpoint of the financial elite and of the politicians that represent it, joining the euro and abandoning the lats has little to do with the pursuit of noble continental ideals, and a lot to do with further reinforcing of class power. Little wonder then that not more than 22% of Latvians favour joining the euro. And so the tragedy continues.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Are we Living in a Post-EU Society?

20. November 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

There seems to be a paradox: whereas the euro crisis has enforced deeper integration, economic and political attention is shifting away from the EU. Europhiles blame the Eurosceptics but EU-watchers should be careful to follow simplistic reasoning.

Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans has the reputation to be an EU-believer and was, among others, a convinced member of the Convention that drafted the Constitutional Treaty. When he became minister of foreign (including EU) affairs, the general impression in the Netherlands, and the rest of the EU, was that his appointment was a good sign of the Netherlands becoming pro-EU again. However, now one year in office, Timmermans has shown himself rather critical of the EU. He talked about a ‘Brussels bubble’ that has lost touch with reality, criticised EU salaries and insisted on closer control of the EU Commission by the European Council (i.e. intergovernmentalisation of the Commission). Of course, it is possible to contribute this to pragmatic kowtowing to the political signs of our times or to the more reserved EU attitude of the Dutch liberal Prime Minister Rutte and his coalition government of which Timmermans is a member.

Yet, there is more. Minister Timmermans is also travelling extensively abroad. In fact, he is much more in other parts of the world than in Brussels or in EU Member States. One could could argue that the Dutch international influence via the EU would be more pronounced and, hence, that the use of all his international activism outside the EU is debatable.

In the meantime, across the channel, Cameron has expressed the possibility of an in-out referendum. A part of British industry has been issuing threats of leaving the country, and many in the EU are once again appalled by the Brits who continue to be unsurpassed EU-sceptics. However, rather than condemning – as so often happens – the Brexit discussion ignited by Cameron, we could also try to take the British debate seriously. Similarly, we might need to consider that Timmermans’ external perspective is well-founded. In any case, it has to be admitted that the British are good at thinking outside the box, so maybe there is more substance behind the Brexit debate than simple Euroscepticism.

Studies also show that big as well as small and medium-sized industry in the UK question the relevance of current EU policies and of the importance of the EU. Whereas about half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, the other half is going to other parts of the world and, more importantly, it is there where the growth in export – not just the UK’s ─ is taking place. Discussions about competitiveness are now primarily linked to comparisons with countries such as India, China, Brazil and the USA.

Hence, rather than sticking to European navel-gazing, it seems justified to look at the rest of the world for market opportunities and for new threats. In principle, questioning social policy objectives – maybe precisely because they are more symbolic than real – and other developments in for example the growing tasks of the ECB and in the EU’s economic governance, seems a valid starting point in the current debates on the future of the EU. It is crucial to consider what such trends imply for the EU’s competitiveness. This is important from an economic perspective but one also has to consider that the EU’s international security and influence are intimately related to its economic strength. External benchmarking of the EU’s competitiveness should not suffer from internal euro crisis debates.

The EU may have to come to terms with the fact that we work and live in a post-EU society, which also helps to put the traditional European claims into perspective. There is a keen awareness in the Netherlands that 70% of our trade goes to countries within the EU, especially to countries within 1000 kilometres of our borders. This has actually little to do with the EU. Trade relations with neighbouring countries are bound to be important, irrespective of the European integration project. Although important, extensive trade with countries close by are more or less traditionally given. Trade with other parts of the world is clearly increasing and posing new and painful challenges. To focus trade relations more on the rest of the world seems a natural and necessary development.

We in the EU may have to accept the post-EU society as a reality. Voters, consumers and industry have interests beyond the internal market and internal eurozone worries. This recognition has, in principle, little to do with anti-EU sentiments. It would be a mistake to taboo those who’ cast their nets out further’. On the contrary, accepting this might actually help us to get a better focus on what is important within the EU, e.g. standing together in external relations, and what is potentially dangerous such as, for example, creating a French-type EU. The European Union is important, but there is a lot more in the world that counts.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Do the German elections matter?

20. September 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

As journalists from across Europe flock to Germany to report on the federal elections this coming Sunday, the question that is asked by many is “Does their outcome matter for Europe?” There is no simple answer to this. Indeed the visions of the major parties on the future of the eurozone and the union as such to this day remain rather unclear – the candidates just don’t talk about them. I speculated in a blog piece in April that it was really only a question of time until the euro hits the campaign – well, generously put, this was wishful thinking. But really, I simply got it wrong.

For different tactical reasons, both the current coalition government of Chancellor Merkel and the major opposition parties, the Greens, the Social Democratic Party and the Left, remained mostly silent on the euro. And with an overall mood of complacency in the country there was no real need to respond to public demand apart from the odd prediction about a new chapter in the Greek drama. So in one of the most formative moments in the history of the European Union, with Germany playing a major role in shaping the future EMU, Germans are pretty much clueless about what to expect on the euro after September 22.

Well, no need for Germans to be wary , so it seems. Colleagues such as Ulrike Guérot and Julian Rappold have recently dissected the positions of the parties on the future of Europe and plotted out what to expect from different election outcomes. Both concluded that the upcoming elections are likely not to change overall German policy or make Germany speeding up with Eurozone reform even if a different coalition made it into power.

I overall agree with these predictions, which of course raise a lot of questions about the prospects for the currency union in the coming months. But I want to focus on a wider point here that has been raised elsewhere, but so far has been largely overlooked by German political elites. This is a subject to be tackled by the next government: The question that is asked increasingly outside of Germany is “Is Berlin still with us?”

Two narratives started to spread that challenge what used to be a certainty about Germany. These two narratives are unfolding in slightly different communities – the EU crowd on the one hand, and the security community on the other. If these narratives continue to be around, and indeed merge, they might put the next German in a rather uncomfortable spot with long-standing partners.

1. The first is the “Germany plays its national card and is willing to go-it-alone” narrative. It is well known in the meantime and encompasses the observation that Germany in the course of the euro crisis developed a good sense of its national interest and used its clout to impose its preferences for the Eurozone architecture on other members. A less prominent facet to this narrative in the continental European debate, but quite present in Britain and the US, is the prediction that the eurozone with its struggling southerners has made Germany look for alternatives elsewhere, notably the emerging economies. “The Germans are bigger than the eurozone”, to put it in a nutshell.
2. The second is the “free-rider” narrative of Germany surfing happily the waves of economic globalisation, with an exports model that fits into the demand of the day, while consuming global security that others provide for. The abstention in the UN Security Council on Libya still resonates, as does Mali – Berlin celebrating 50 years of Franco-German reconciliation while letting Paris do the dirty job in Africa. And then, Syria – aren’t the Germans out once again? “If only the world was a happier place, but it isn’t, and the Germans are cherry-picking the nice bits”, such is the storyline.

From a Berlin perspective I have to say that none of these narratives are entirely convincing to me, but I can see why this current coalition triggered these perceptions elsewhere. Clearly, even without agreeing one has to acknowledge they exist. And such views are likely to spread further unless a new German government made its positions on its European and international choices clear again, and acted accordingly. I don’t see a great deal of awareness over these issues here in Berlin. But I do believe that there are serious questions out there about Germany being a reliable partner, and these questions need a response from the next federal government in Berlin.

I’ll get back to where I see the next government placing itself with regard to these two narratives once the dust settles next week.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

German Federal Constitutional Court Chews on Role of European Central Bank

18. June 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

Verdicts from Karlsruhe usually serve as pacifiers for the German public and, more recently, for the eurozone as a whole. Remember the ruling on the ESM and the Fiscal Compact, which the German Federal Constitutional Court concluded was reconcilable with the country’s basic law, or Grundgesetz, in September 2012. What a relief this announcement was for the eurozone’s capitals in their step-by-step struggle for the rescue of the common currency. Germans tend to have a great deal of respect for their constitutional court, and fellow Europeans over the past years learned that every year or so they would have to set eyes onto this city in the southwest of Germany: What does Karlsruhe say?

However, on the euro, things remain far from being put to rest. The overall question that continues to loom is to what extend the more recent rescue measures are covered under the Grundgesetz, or whether they lead to a further Europeanization that the German constitution does not allow for in its current shape. The eurozone continues to be a moving target and at the time of the ESM verdict in the fall of 2012 the judges already knew they would have to chew on another measure of the euro rescue: the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme announced as the court was still dealing with the ESM and the Fiscal Compact. With the programme the ECB said it was ready to buy government bonds of eurozone countries affected by the crisis in order to stabilize their interest levels.

Critics say that this programme violated EU treaties, in particular article 123 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU. It is however widely assumed that without this bold move of the ECB the eurozone would not have made it into 2013. What is being questioned though by several groups, among them the NGO “Mehr Demokratie” supported by various organisations and 37.000 German citizens is the legality of the rescue measure. Did the ECB go well beyond its mandate and did it thereby violate the budgetary rights of the German parliament and of German taxpayers? Clearly, these are fair and reasonable questions to ask.

With an impressive line-up including Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, powerfully eloquent political figures such as Gregor Gysi, the head of DIE LINKE in the Bundestag, and the euro-critic MP Peter Gauweiler, the president of the Bundesbank Jens Weidmann and ECB executive board member Jörg Asmussen, the stage was set for drama in Karlsruhe. The media particularly loved what was framed as two gladiators, reportedly friends from university days in Bonn, confronting each other in the courtroom: Jens Weidmann, well-known for its critical stance on the ECB’s bond buying programme, was the only member of the Governing Council that voted against the programme in the fall of 2012. Jörg Asmussen then has been an articulate and public advocate of the ECB’s programme, making the point that while indeed the mission of the central bank was to work for price stability in the eurozone, there was no point in sticking to a narrow interpretation of the mandate when the eurozone was facing a breakup. There are a number of very complex issues that the court will have to look at in the months to come, and many of them are without precedent. But not surprisingly, German gladiators deliberate even the hottest issues in the calmest way – no big surprises in the courtroom last week.

Politically speaking the issues on the table are certainly powerful, and potentially challenging what has perhaps been the most effective intervention in the euro rescue so far. The weird thing is that while the current German government and all that work for a further recovery of the eurozone certainly long for yet another pacifier made by Karlsruhe, the court might have to disappoint when it announces its conclusions in the fall: de facto, Karlsruhe for now is dealing with a non-issue. So far, the ECB only announced the OMT programme without implementing it in detail, a move that proved enough to prevent the breakup of the eurozone. Can a mere announcement form the basis of a court case? The president of the Federal Constitutional Court Andreas Voßkuhle during last week’s hearings made the point that the court’s power was limited. The ECB was an independent European institution, indicating that it was beyond Karlsruhe’s competence to rule over the ECB’s action. Commentators say there is a chance for the case to be conveyed to the European Court of Justice in the end – which perhaps would bring a different dynamic to the outcome.

What has already been a feature of last year’s deliberations on the ESM and the Fiscal Compact was visible again last week: The highest German judges would perhaps like to stay away from the politics of the euro rescue, but because of the nature of the complaints clearly struggle to do so. Ironically, the ECB would (or should) also be more in its comfort zone in a less politicised role.

The real baffling issue around last week’s shoulder rubbing between Karlsruhe and Frankfurt is therefore the weakness (some would even argue the absence) of politics. Without any doubt, the OMT will not solve the problems of the eurozone in the end. For the eurozone’s governments still to make their case! I am not sure the June summit will bring some of the much-needed decisions and will get back to this.

Reckless Spending and Excessive Wage Growth: Myths Debunked

13. June 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

If I were to pinpoint the two most harmful and most often repeated myths at the core of the orthodox account of the euro crisis, these would surely be, first, that the public debt crisis across the eurozone was solely or mostly caused by reckless government spending; and second, that the fundamental competitiveness problem of the economies of the eurozone periphery is a result of excessive real wage growth. Both of these propositions have been repeated so often that they have become a sort of common wisdom – and yet they are both false.

Let us begin with the first proposition. The problem with it, of course, is that it disregards the crucial facts that: a) budget deficits are an endogenous variable whose ‘receipts’ and ‘expenditures’ components are both adversely affected by recession, as indeed they have been in the last few years and especially so in 2008-2009; b) that in many eurozone countries, bank bailouts account for a substantial portion of the budget deficits of the last few years and c) that factors other than budget deficits contribute to public debt levels spiralling out of control – namely the compounding interest charged on that debt, particularly when far in excess of GDP growth (the so-called ‘snowball effect’). Take all of these into account and you get a very different picture from the alleged government largesse.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about the quality of public finance in many of these countries in the last few years or decades, including with respect to ruinous public-private partnerships, tax exemptions and other forms of government capture by vested interests. However, the idea that the simultaneous public debt crises of numerous eurozone countries was caused by governments in all of these countries suddenly and recklessly deciding to increase spending on a whim is, quite simply, not true. What really underlies the public debt crisis is the lethal combination of recession, deflation and the unbelievably Byzantine financial-sector mediation between the ECB and governments (a case-study in financial expropriation for many decades to come). And the corollary is that austerity only makes everything worse and will continue to do so; the only way to solve the (public and private) debt crisis is growth along with moderate inflation (and in some cases the inevitable write-downs).

The second fallacy is also a particularly persistent and pervasive one, and usually relies on showing how the nominal compensation of employees, or alternatively unit labour costs (ULCs), increased in excess of productivity in the eurozone periphery in the last couple of decades, thereby causing competitiveness to deteriorate. In turn, this argument very quickly leads to the conclusion that regaining competitiveness requires sharp wage cuts (internal devaluation). This, too, has been repeated to the point of exhaustion, perhaps most notably and recently by Mr. Draghi in a two-hour session with the eurozone’s 17 heads of state and government in March (see the power point here). Both the argument and the conclusion are plainly wrong, however.

As Felipe and Kumar show in one of the most important (and neglected) papers to have been written on the euro crisis , while ULCs lend themselves to an intuitive and correct interpretation at the firm level (say, the labour cost of producing a table or laptop), at the aggregate level of the economy they are constructed using the economy’s value added, rather than physical quantities, as the measure of output – and therefore the ‘intuitive’ interpretation is no longer appropriate. Rather, these authors show algebraically that, at the aggregate level, ULCs are nothing other than a simple product of two factors: the labour share in the functional distribution of income multiplied by the price deflator (rate of inflation). Allow me to rephrase this: an increase in aggregate ULCs can only be accounted for about by an increase in the labour share of income and/or by inflation. Indeed, we can construct an exactly analogous indicator, called Unit Capital Costs (UKCs), which increases to the extent that the capital share of income increases and/or that there is inflation. And what do we get when we do compute this indicator for the eurozone economies? Refer back to Felipe and Kumar (p. 16) and… lo and behold: with the sole exception of Greece, UKCs increased more than ULCs in every single euro zone country both between 1980 and 2007 and between 1995 and 2007.

The interpretation should by now be obvious: Greece was the only euro country where the functional distribution of income changed in labour’s favour in the last three decades; in all the other countries, the capital share of income increased at the expense of labour; and the extent to which the various economies had greater or lesser increases in both their ULCs and their UKCs was a consequence of differential inflation. So ULCs are really quite distinct from real wages; and following this aggregate approach to its logical policy consequences would entail measures to cut down profits, not wages, in order to regain competitiveness. The real culprits of the differential change in ULCs (or the nominal compensation of employees) across the euro zone is differential inflation and the real wage decrease in the European core – not real wage increases in the periphery.

Promoting competitiveness in the periphery through wage compression is therefore both cynical and wrong – in several different ways. First, workers are being forced to foot the bill twice over; second, the prime determinant of economic competitiveness is not sale price per se, but rather sale prices combined with the pattern of productive specialisation (and recessionary internal devaluations are not helping with the latter, either); and third, the Great Stagnation that the US and Europe as a whole have been living through is a consequence of insufficient demand in the context of a massive (though protracted) process of debt deflation, so compressing wages in the current context is a sure way to further compress demand and curb growth (see here for more detailed information on this).

On some occasions, this erroneous diagnosis takes on an especially aberrant and cynical twist: that’s when the argument is constructed around a comparison of nominal ULCs (or the nominal compensation of employees) with real (i.e. deflated) productivity. Seems obviously wrong even to a first-year undergraduate, wouldn’t you say? Well, that’s actually what many analysts and commentators have been doing for quite a while – and it’s also a key part of Mr Draghi’s story (check slides 9 and 10 in his power point presentation, link above).

So neither is the public debt crisis caused by reckless spending, nor is declining competitiveness a consequence of excessive wage increases. And yet, these ‘fairy tales’ are repeated again and again to make us believe them and are used as a pretext for deleterious and counterproductive policies. We’ve been here before (does the name Heinrich Brüning ring any bells?) – and it wasn’t pretty. Shouldn’t we be taking the lessons from history far more seriously?

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Frau Merkel and the ‘C-Word’

5. June 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

Both the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have just published findings about the performance of the German economy and the state of structural reforms. While there is plenty of discussions in Berlin about what ‘the others’ (in particular France) are not getting right, there is not much of a debate on what ‘the others’ (Commission and IMF) suggest that Germany is or is not getting right. The new findings did not get much attention in the public debate.

Not surprisingly perhaps, as both reports continue what sounds like good news and point out that Germany’s public finances have been overall sound. The IMF underlines that Germany’s “safe haven status and strong balance sheets” has been an “anchor of stability” during the eurozone recovery. When it comes to the recommendations, however, the IMF experts do again not shy away from getting involved with the politics of the euro crisis, welcoming this year’s marginal loosening of the fiscal stance: “(…) fiscal over-performance should be firmly avoided as it could imply a contractionary fiscal stance that is unwarranted in the current low growth environment.”

The Commission is more cautious on the question that has been dominating the eurozone debate for the past months: is Germany that is leading on fiscal consolidation (which makes it look like the teacher’s pet, something Chancellor Merkel was so pleased about in her home country) the real burden to the eurozone? It is hardly surprising that the Commission avoids this hot issue, since the report is a mere recommendation to the Council of Ministers. And, arguably, the Commission diligently follows a rather narrow mandate in assessing German fiscal policy and its 2013 national reform programme. However, against the background of a fierce debate (mostly resonating outside of Germany) on how to trigger jobs and growth in the eurozone the European Commission’s proposals look rather innocent. Frau Merkel, of course, will have been pleased not only with the findings, but also with the fact that the Commission basically restricted itself to inserting the data they collected in the Member States into tables without spending too much time on interpreting them.

The IMF underlines Germany’s crucial role in shaping the future institutional and legal framework of the eurozone. This reads like a hardly veiled criticism on Chancellor Merkel’s so far rather woolly ideas. Just last week, her joint proposal with President Hollande on establishing the function of a permanent president for the eurozone raised eyebrows even within her coalition in Berlin. While I believe it was right to respond to the French initiative launched by President Hollande, as I suggested in my previous blog piece, Merkel should not underestimate the attention she gets for such moves. She might have considered it as a friendly yet half-hearted response to the bruised neighbour, likely to end up watered down or even abandoned the moment its gets on the agenda of the 27 members. But Merkel should know that any move that might shed light on where Germany wants to take the eurozone is taken rather seriously these days and tactical moves are likely to be met with indignation.

Another more telling intervention of Angela Merkel received attention this week. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL the chancellor reiterated what has become in my opinion the word around which she develops her construction plan for Europe: coordination. In her world, the Commission president has a “coordinating function over the policies of the national governments” and therefore should continue to be nominated by the heads of state and government (with a certain role for the European Parliament to play). No more transfer of competencies to the Commission, but improved coordination in policy areas that can strengthen the competitiveness of the eurozone. Read again her Bruges speech of 2010 – it is pretty much in there already.

Needless to say that Merkel’s “c-word” has been a declaration of war to those who carry the “f-word” banner (in the continental, not the British understanding of federalism) advocating for strong and independent EU institutions. A widely overlooked decision: the heads of state used a clause in the Lisbon Treaty and agreed to keep one Commissioner for each Member State at the recent May summit. While this was only a formal adoption of a decision previously being granted to Ireland, Chancellor Merkel was surely pleased. After all, the European party families are gearing up their campaigns for the European Parliament elections in 2014 with joint candidates for the post of the Commission president. What a nightmare for the ‘c-lady’ to imagine a democratically legitimised president of the European Commission representing the majority in the EP, presiding over a reduced college of Commissioners. What would the reports of such a more independent figure have looked like?

After the questionable results of the “open methods of coordination” in the Lisbon Strategy of 2000 – will coordination as a mode of governance get its second wind? Frau Merkel is taking the lead in its revival.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Will France Become like the Netherlands or the Netherlands like France?

28. May 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (1)

To understand the euro project we need to go back to 1989 and the frustrations over exchange rate adaptations under the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). France was frustrated by the hard Deutsch Mark and, occasionally, lost billions on aligning the FF to the DM. Mitterrand used the German unification as a lever to get Kohl to accept the euro. This was regarded by the Dutch with grave worries for various reasons. In essence, the euro is a French project.

For one, the Dutch, together with the Germans, wanted at least to ensure that the euro would be a hard currency and demanded the Maastricht criteria, the SGP and an independent ECB. The demand for rules to reinforce economic institutions continues and resulted of late in an ‘independent Commissioner’ and semi-automatic sanctions. The euro may have a French pedigree but was supposed to become German/Dutch and, with that, ‘southern’ Europeans would/should become like the Germans/Dutch. One of the most recent steps in this effort was the line in the six pack that all countries should have an independent budgetary authority. The Dutch have such a prestigious economic analysis bureau but in France this function has been part of the Ministry of Finance. Strong economic governance goes together with strong, independent, rule-bound and transparent institutions.

The Netherlands is now in a recession and economic prospects seem to be gloomy for some time to come. To be able to reform, the Dutch need to rely on their proven social ‘polder-model’ and recently a social pact between employers and employees was agreed on and supported by the government. However, the government did not want the independent budgetary control office to examine the consequences of this social pact nor its implications for the 3% rule. Moreover, this control office recently had a shift in leadership and a top civil from the ministry of finance was appointed. The new director may be extremely competent but the image of independence is endangered. Moreover, Prime Minister Rutte spoke out to be optimistic about economic prospects. Yet, over-optimism has been one of the most annoying characteristic of politicians when it comes to reliable statements about the SGP criteria. Recently Hollande also presented a brighter economic future for France than Olli Rehn. In the debate for EP on 7 May, Dijsselbloem ̶ albeit it as chair of the Eurogroup ̶ emphasised that we should not examine the weakness of banks until the eurozone has the resolution mechanisms in place. Hence, the message seems to be, let us postpone the facts until we think we are ready. Is it wise to circumvent facts, to thwart the image of independence and not to analyse major reform proposals?

Rumsfeld once stated that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but the eurozone has invented the ‘unknowns we’d rather not know’. The French had a political perspective on the fiscal policy whereas the Germans and Dutch stood for rationality. As it now seems, the euro is not changing Hollande into Kohl, but it might make the Netherlands more French.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Blog Authors

Adriaan SchoutAdriaan Schout

Dr Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research/Europe at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International relations. (read more...)

Alexandre AbreuAlexandre Abreu

Dr Alexandre Abreu is a 33-year-old Portuguese economist with a PhD from the University of London. Currently he is a lecturer in Development Economics at the Institute of Economics and Business Administration, Technical University of Lisbon, and a Researcher at the Centre for African and Development Studies of the same University.

Almut MöllerAlmut Möller

Almut Möller is a political analyst in European integration and European foreign policy. She is currently the head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. (read more...)

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