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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.”

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.”

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.”

Dangerous Fantasies and Really Existing ‘Adjustment’

15. May 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (1)

It has been two years to the month since the original Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the ECB-EC-IMF Troika and the Portuguese Government. Elections followed shortly after, bringing into power a new conservative coalition government, which proceeded to implement the structural adjustment programme with unbridled enthusiasm. In the words of Prime Minister Passos Coelho in June 2011, the newly-elected government was “keen to surpass the Troika”.

And, as a matter of fact, it has: successive cuts in government spending, affecting in particular the health, education and social security areas (albeit not the police budget, as befits the ‘austeritarian’ model); sharp increases in user fees, VAT and income taxes; radical changes in labour laws (including slashing unemployment benefits, longer working hours and raising the age of retirement – significant choices at a time of hyper-unemployment); the ongoing privatisation of the remainder of the state-owned sector and numerous other measures in accordance with the austerity/privatisation/deregulation model. In sum, the full neoliberal package in compressed form, of which the economic and social effects have long been well-known from the experience of the global South in the 1980s, though it has to be kept in mind that the first-wave of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), unlike the current ones, at least made allowance for currency devaluations.

The results speak for themselves. In Portugal, U-3 unemployment shot up from 12% to 17.5% in the last two years, while broad unemployment is currently around 27% and unemployment protection coverage has been significantly reduced. Consumption, investment and therefore GDP have all been freefalling: in the case of GDP, the total reduction since the MoU entered into effect has been around -5%. The current account deficit has been significantly narrowed (in fact, almost eliminated), but that was due to the effect upon imports of the sharp compression of domestic demand and the closure of tens of thousands of SMEs (the brief spike in exports in 2012 was caused by the temporary external depreciation of the euro and was quickly reversed in mid-2012). And most tellingly of all, public debt has kept increasing in both absolute and relative terms (from 108% of GDP in 2011 to 126% at present); for the most part because fiscal revenues kept falling as a consequence of the (largely self-induced) recession. Not yet as catastrophic as the Greek case, but well on its way there – and with a fully compliant government in power.

Now, this is not quite how it was supposed to turn out, was it? Wasn’t the whole idea to bring public debt under control and to unleash the economy’s growth potential by getting rid of excessive regulation, protection and government interference? Wasn’t the slashing of ‘unit labour costs’ (that persistent fallacy, to which I shall return in my next post) supposed to have boosted competitiveness and brought about sustained growth? Well, maybe so in the fantasy world of expansionary austerity and supply-side economics. But of course we all know that austerity is not expansionary and by now we should all know that this crisis (not just in Portugal, but more generally in Europe and across advanced economies as a whole) is being driven by demand, not supply. So why do the Troika and governments across Europe keep insisting on the same recipe? Why have all seven revisions of the Portuguese MoU involved the acknowledgement of a complete failure to attain the targets that were previously set, while carrying on prescribing the same measures yet predicting an imminent recovery? Is it stupidity or malice?

Well, I certainly don’t think that either these decision-makers or their technical staff are stupid people. So, as Sherlock Holmes would put it, that leaves malice as the only plausible explanation. And we have good grounds for pinpointing exactly what malice means here. Studies of the effects of the first-wave SAPs (see here and here, for example) have shown that neoliberal structural adjustment has consistently failed to bring about growth, vastly increased poverty, but, crucially, significantly increased the capital share of national income at the expense of labour. In the Portuguese case and in 2012 alone, the labour share of income dropped from 65% to 62% ̶ and all the gains were concentrated in larger corporations, not SMEs.

This is really about getting a larger piece of a smaller pie and that is why you get a coalition of international and domestic interests pushing forth this agenda. Large capital is bent on increasing its power – even if it destroys the entire European project. There’s not much time left to rein it in and avoid such an outcome.

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.”

The European crisis explained in two graphs

13. March 2013, von Aldo Caruso, Comments (1)

Guest contribution by Ricardo Paes Mamede (Assistant professor at the Department of Political Economy of ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon)

A long book is probably too short to explain the European crisis in full length and depth. However, the essential causes of this crisis can be grasped with two simple ideas.

1) The sovereign debt crisis stems from the accumulation of external debt (both public and private) in some EU economies since the early 1990s

Since 2010, the interest rates on the sovereign bonds of some EU countries has increased sharply. According to the official view, the causes of this sovereign debt crisis are to be found in unsustainable national fiscal policies and the postponement of ‘structural reforms’– mainly labour market liberalisation and pension systems’ reforms – in the countries most affected by the crisis. But this is not what the data show. Fiscal developments and changes in labour market laws and pension systems vary widely across countries, both among those most affected by the crisis and among the remaining EU member states. On the contrary, as the first graph shows, the relation between the sovereign debt crisis and external indebtedness (public and private) is rather clear: countries whose sovereign debt interest grew the most in 2010-2012 were those which accumulated more external debt since the mid-1990s (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Correlation between the accumulation of external debt (% of GDP) and sovereign debt crisis

Change in % of GDP between 1996 and 2008

Change in % of GDP between 1996 and 2008

Source: AMECO
Notes: External indebtedness is measured by the International Investment Position, a commonly used indicator of external debt. Data on some EU countries is unavailable for the period under analysis, namely: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Ireland, Malta and Romania.

Therefore, in order to understand the causes of the European crisis first we have to explain why some countries accumulated more external debt (public and private) than others over the years. This brings us to the second idea.

2) The determining factor behind the growing indebtedness of some countries (and improved external position of others) is the specialization profile of each national economy

In the 20 years preceding the global crisis of 2008/9, EU economies have undergone significant transformations, most of which were politically induced. These include: the abolition of customs barriers within the EU, the creation of the internal capital market, the liberalization of financial flows and activities, the increasing EU level control over monetary and fiscal policies, the trade agreements between the EU and China (and other emerging economies), the Eastern EU enlargement, the appreciation of the euro against the dollar (from 2003), or the sharp increase in oil prices (between 2002 and 2008). These changes encompassed all Member States, but had very different impacts across countries. Lacking the appropriate policy instruments to manage such impacts, countries with less advanced productive structures accumulated more debt (public and private) than the others. This is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Relationship between the accumulation of external debt and the specialization profile of each national economy

% of business employment, 1998

% of business employment, 1998


Sources: Eurostat and AMECO
In other words, the rules and institutions of the EU have proved very suitable for certain economies with more advanced productive structures, but detrimental for others. It is worth noting that productive structures take a long time to change, regardless of the policies pursued at the national level.

 

Conclusion

It makes little sense to sustain that the sovereign debt crisis is fundamentally caused by government misconduct in specific countries. To be sure, citizens from different parts of Europe have many reasons to complaint about the quality of their democracies and the about decisions taken both at the national and the EU levels. Still, the main mistake of the national leaders of those countries most affected by the crisis was probably the decision to participate in the European integration process according to the rules that were adopted in the past decades, without anticipating the difficulties this would create for their economies. Their greatest mistake will be to persist in the same path.

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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