Update from the Economic Wasteland

Watching Europe trying to get out of its recession is like watching a man trying to ride a bike in zero gravity. No matter how hard they try to pedal forward, they are completely and utterly stuck in one and the same spot. That GDP growth spurt that was going to jolt the European economy back to life is turning into little more than a fairy tale. In fact, reality is going in the exact opposite direction. From the EU Observer:

The eurozone economy will shrink by a further 0.3 percent in 2013, the European Commission said Friday (22 February), revising down a more optimistic previous estimate that had predicted 0.1 percent growth for this year. The data also indicates that average government debt rose by 5 percent in 2012 to 93.1 percent as a proportion of GDP. The average debt level is expected to peak at 95.2 percent in 2014, well above the 60 percent threshold set out in the bloc’s Stability and Growth Pact.

Please note that the growth rate is adjusted down by 0.4 percentage points, a relatively large adjustment for such a short period of time. The reason is probably not faulty economic models, as the EC gets its data from their own statistics bureau, Eurostat. It is more likely that the reason has to do with political meddling with the  non-formal forecasting process – or, to be blunt: politicians and bureaucrats have written in their own delusional beliefs in the virtues of austerity into a forecast that otherwise would show the naked truth about said austerity.

As for the 60 percent debt level, it is entirely artificial without the slightest scientific foundation. It was imposed on the EU by a group of politicians and bureaucrats who designed the Stability and Growth Pact and wanted to look fiscally conservative. The 60-percent level was one of two arbitrary features of the Pact, the other being the requirement that EU member states cap their deficits to three percent of GDP. This latter feature is, by the way, the main culprit behind the panic-driven austerity assaults on the budgets in, e.g., Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Needless to say, that has made it even harder for the member states to meet the goals of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Back to the EU Observer:

News on government budgetary positions was more positive. The average deficit in the eurozone had fallen by 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent, with the commission expecting a further 0.75 percent improvement to bring the eurozone average under the 3 percent threshold. Announcing the figures, Economic Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn admitted that “the hard data is still very disappointing” adding that the progress made by national governments to cut budget deficits was “not yet feeding into the real economy.”

Yes they are. They are just not feeding in like Mr. Rehn thinks they should. Instead of making the economy grow, which is Mr. Rehn’s delusional belief, his spending cuts and tax increases are perpetuating and even aggravating the recession.

As for the improvement on the budget deficit front, it is an expected, temporary effect resulting from last year’s spending cuts and tax increases. Things will turn for the worse again once the latest austerity round proliferates through the economy.

To get the full story of what it is Mr. Rehn does not get, download this paper and check out Figure 3 on page 15. Given how obvious these macroeconomic mechanisms are, it is very surprising that Eurocrats like Mr. Rehn are still getting away with their austerity fantasies.

Or maybe they are not. Perhaps things have gotten so bad in so many countries now that people are prepared to throw out the balanced-budget requirements in order to allow for prosperity to start growing again. The Italian election will give us a big hint, explains another story from the EU Observer:

Italian voters are heading to the polls on Sunday and Monday (24-25 February) in a closely-watched race that could bring the country back to the brink of a bailout. Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, a respected former EU commissioner and economics professor, may be the favourite among EU leaders watching from the side lines, but at home, he appears to have failed to convince voters that his reforms and sober politics are what the country needs today.

It is hardly a sign of sobriety when someone recommends higher taxes and spending cuts in the midst of a recession.

In a significant catch-up effort – thanks to his media empire and promises to pay back taxes introduced by Monti – former leader Silvio Berlusconi was just five percent behind [center-left candidate] Bersani in the 8 February survey. … For its part, Italy’s leading investment bank, Mediobanca, has predicted that if Berlusconi wins, the country would face an immediate backlash on financial markets and could be forced to ask for financial assistance from the European Central Bank.

For what reason? Berlusconi would in all likelihood abandon the austerity policies, and if he follows through on its promises to not only reverse the tax cuts but do it retroactively, he will in fact inject a stimulus into the economy of a kind that could get the Italian economy growing again. That in turn would ease the budget pressure and increase confidence among investors in, e.g., Italian treasury bonds.

If, on the other hand, Bersani wins he might form an alliance with Monti to please the Eurocrats. That in turn would increase the likelihood of more austerity hammering down on the Italian economy. Given its size, that will have clearly negative effects on the economy of the euro zone.

As will the continuing commitment to austerity in France, where the socialist government has been forced to adjust its budget deficit forecast. From the increasingly influential pan-European news site The Local:

The figure for this year, when France was due to get back within the EU’s ceiling of 3.0 percent of output, is worse than the 3.5 percent previously tipped, and leaves Socialist President Francois Hollande looking for special leeway from Brussels. European Union Economy and Euro Commissioner Olli Rehn told a press conference that France could be given more time to meet its commitments, much as Spain and others have been over the three years of the debt crisis. “If the expected negative economic headwinds bring significant, unfavourable consequences for public finances, the (EU’s) Stability and Growth Pact allows for the deadline (for France) to be pushed back to 2014,” he said.

This is not very surprising, given that the French government has been forced to acknowledge that the nation’s economy will not grow as fast as they had suggested it would. This concession is hardly surprising, given the harsh fiscal measures that President Hollande and his fellow socialists in the National Assembly have imposed on the French economy.

In fact, the situation is beginning to look a bit panicky in Paris. Another story from The Local:

France needs an extra €6 billion in revenues next year, the budget minister said on Monday, and the European Central Bank said it had to act fast to cut spending and retain credibility after slashing the 2013 growth forecast. … Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac … did not specify how this would be achieved saying taxes “are already very high in France.”

Really…? Does that mean that even socialists acknowledge that a 75-percent hate tax on high incomes is a bad idea? Or is 76 percent the “very high” limit?

Regardless of whether the French want to have stupidly high taxes or very stupidly high taxes, the pressure is on them to keep the austerity pressure on the economy. The Local again:

French ministries have been informed how much to cut spending in order for the government to generate €2 billion in savings this year. “Economies in public spending are inevitable,” Cahuzac said. “We have started to do it, we will continue to do it,” he added. Benoît Coeure, a Frenchman who sits on the managing board of the European Central Bank, said on Monday that Paris had to take strong action to convince its European Union partners that it was serious about keeping to the EU’s deficit norms.

Surprisingly, in the midst of all this, President Hollande does not want more austerity…

arguing they would only slow growth and further aggravate the country’s finances.

But a 75-percent hate tax on the “rich” does not slow growth, right? Regardless, it seems like the French government is now forced to walk a thin rope. On the one hand, budget minister Coeure says that:

“As for credibility on the short-term, France must absolutely respect its commitment to cut the structural deficit,” … “In the medium-term, it has to take quick and concrete decisions to achieve spending cuts, so that France reassures its European partners,” he said.

On the other hand we have president Hollande’s realization that austerity might not be such a good idea after all. What to do? Well, the Eurocracy is going to maintain its pressure on Hollande and the French government, especially now that Mr. Rehn has made clear that he believes the crisis is basically over and Europe has austerity to thank for it.  He is not going to let go of his story that easily, which means he will keep Hollande in check and force him to “pet the horse” as the Danes say, i.e., do as he is told.

If at the same time the Eurocrats’ favorites form the next administration in Italy, the forces of austerity will continue to prevail. Under their boot, Europe will solidly establish itself as an economic wasteland, mired in industrial poverty. The balanced budgets will shine their glory over rusting steel mills, crumbling hospitals and the masses of the unemployed.

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