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?