Structural Reform Euro-Speak for Austerity

On April 24 I reported that the chairman of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, was going out and about telling Europe and the world that years of crippling austerity policies were coming to an end. I warned against believing him, especially because the EU was unrelenting in its demands on member states with budget problems to stick to austerity programs.

My warning still stands, for a number of reasons I will outline below. There is growing evidence, though, that the Commission is trying to divest itself of austerity, and the reason is ostensibly that they have come to realize that austerity has become politically toxic. But this does not mean they have abandoned the economic thinking behind austerity, only that they have decided to dress it in new political attire.

A report from Euractiv explains what the Commission now wants for Europe:

The European Commission will further shift the EU’s policy focus from austerity to structural reforms to revive growth when it presents economic recommendations for each member state tomorrow (29 May), officials said. In its annual assessment as guardian of the EU’s budget rules, the Commission will say that while fiscal consolidation should continue, its pace can be slower now that a degree of investor confidence in the euro has been restored.

First of all, investors are more pessimistic about Europe now than they were before the austerity campaign began. This means, among other things, that they believe that either will austerity continue or its effects will linger on in the European economy for a long time to come.

Secondly, the only reason why there seems to be restored confidence in the euro is that the ECB has artificially propped up the value of the treasury bonds of troubled states. The ECB has de facto pledged to buy up every single treasury bond from Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. In other words, the confidence is not in the currency but in the short-term soundness of owning Greek, Spanish and Portuguese treasury bonds.

It is really very simple. Normally, investors who lose confidence in, e.g., a treasury bond would demand a very high interest rate to even consider buying it. This drove the interest rate on Spanish treasury bonds up north of seven percent, a rate that means the bond is teetering on the edge of the financial junk yard. At that point, only the boldest investors put any substantial money into it.

Then came the ECB and its guarantee to buy back bonds – in theory an unlimited amount – from anyone who owns Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or Greek bonds. (Technically the guarantee was more limited than that, but the expectation quickly spread that it would apply to all troubled euro countries.) Needless to say, investors suddenly saw a practically unprecedented opportunity to make some really big money: seven percent return on treasury bonds with a 100-percent buyback guarantee.

In order to avail themselves of this unique opportunity, investors had to buy euros. The rise in demand for the money give-away party hosted by governments in southern Europe meant that more people needed more euros. The decline in the euro’s exchange rate stopped and the currency suddenly looked stable.

That is, in a nutshell, what happened in 2012 and early 2013. It is a sordid story, and the political cynicism in it is only reinforced by the fact that the European Commission is using it as an excuse to try to get out of its commitment to austerity. But as we shall see, it is wise not to believe them.

Euractiv again:

Because highly indebted governments cannot afford to kickstart growth through public spending, they must reform the way their economies are run – by making labour markets more flexible or by opening up product and services markets. “The main message will be that the emphasis is shifting to structural reforms from austerity,” one senior EU official said. The recommendations, once approved by EU leaders at a summit in late June, will become binding and are expected to influence how national budgets are drafted for 2014 and onwards.

Let us put aside for a moment the ridiculous notion that government spending is a good kick-starter of economic growth. When the EU Commission talks about structural reforms it means deregulation of markets. This may sound like a big leap in the direction of economic freedom, but it really isn’t. Deregulation is always good, but it cannot do the trick on its own. Deregulation of the labor market is Euro-speak for loosening up hire-and-fire laws, thus making it easier for employers to take on workers without a life-long commitment.

This would make a difference for the better, if employers were screaming for more workers. But the reason why there is not more job creation in Europe is not that hire-and-fire laws are in the way of job creation – the reason is that private employers do not see their sales go up. On the contrary, in many countries the private sector is stagnant; the entire economy for the euro area is expected to grow by a microscopic 0.1 percent this year. This translates directly into stand-still sales for millions of businesses, large and small, across Europe.

Why take on more employers when there is no new business for them to take care of?

The other deregulation effort mentioned above is to increase competition on regular consumer-product markets. The idea is to drive prices down, thus give people’s real wages a boost and thereby encourage more consumer spending.

This structural reform could have substantial effects. I remember reading a study back in graduate school (about 1998 or ’99) that showed that disposable income of Danish households was 20 percent higher than otherwise thanks to deregulation efforts a decade earlier. I am not going to vouch for the results of this study as I don’t have it available, but economic theory rather clearly supports the notion that a high degree of competition on consumer markets is good for the economy.

However, once again we run into the problem of a stagnant economy. The Danish economy was thriving back in the ’90s, which made it easy to reap the harvests of deregulation. This does not mean you should not deregulate in a deep recession, but I would caution against believing in this as the sword that will solve the Gordian knot. It takes longer for competition to affect prices in a stagnant market than in a growing market: a stagnant market does not invite nearly as many new sellers as a market characterized by growing sales. It takes longer to recover the costs of investing in sales infrastructure and in establishing a market brand on a stagnant market, compared to one that is booming.

It is therefore safe to conclude that deregulation, while welcome, will have little positive effect on the European economy.

Which brings us back to the austerity issue. I suspect that the EU Commission is basing its deregulation proposals on some glossy forecast of growth. That growth in turn will, they think, grow the tax base and boost government revenues, which in turn will eliminate budget deficits and make austerity redundant.

The ten-thousand euro question, then, is: what will the EU Commission do when they discover that their deregulation efforts have not had nearly the effect they were hoping for? Let us not forget that they are still very much committed to balanced budgets in all euro-area member states (and theoretically in all other EU states as well, though not as adamantly since they have their own currencies). If tax revenues fall short of what the EU Commission needs to declare austerity cease-fire, it is as certain as Amen in church on Sunday that they will return to austerity.

Another piece of evidence to the same conclusion is the fact that they have not even abandoned austerity, just slowed down the pace at which it is being implemented. Euractiv again:

The 17 countries that share the euro will have halved the pace of budget consolidation in 2013 compared to 2012, as the overall budget deficit of the eurozone fell by 1.5% of GDP in 2012 but will only shrink a further 0.75% this year, the European Commission forecast this month. … Unless policies change the overall eurozone consolidation will be only 0.1% of GDP in 2014, the Commission said … The Commission has already indicated that it will give France, the eurozone’s second biggest economy, and Spain, the fourth largest, two extra years to bring their budget deficits below the EU ceiling of 3% of GDP, and other countries are also expected to get a year’s extension.

The flattening-out effect is probably under-estimated. The reduction in deficit-to-GDP in 2012 is the accounting-style effect of a slew of austerity programs in Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and France. Once these programs have gone into effect – which they now have – they will start spreading their venom into the economy. Governments take more money from the private sector and give less back. Private sector activity is depressed, resulting in lower GDP growth. The tax base shrinks compared to the forecast that the EU Commission had in mind, and the deficit-to-GDP ratio starts rising again no later than 2014.

Bottom line is that the EU Commission has not given any country a pass on austerity, only some leeway to take a couple of extra years to shove the bitter pill down the throats of their voters. Austerity remains the top item on their agenda.

And just to reinforce this point, Euractiv explains that in exchange for more leeway on austerity…

both France and Spain will have to commit to broad structural and labour-market reforms intended to make their economies more competitive and help create jobs.

In other words: austerity first, then maybe some reforms to boost the tax base. If the reforms don’t work, the governments of both France and Spain will be forced back into the fiscal torture chambers again.

One final note. Nowhere in this does the EU Commission speak of structural reforms that actually reduce government spending on a permanent basis. Which makes the welfare state the elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

Except, of course, The Liberty Bullhorn. Here, on the other hand, we already have a plan for doing away with the welfare state.