Austerity Leaves Ireland in Stagnation

On Monday I explained that Greece has begun a transition from depression to stagnation. The transition is visible in macroeconomic data: the decline in GDP and private consumption, both of which have been going on for years, are not as fast anymore, and unemployment seems to be plateauing. Government debt is still growing, though, especially when measured as a ratio to GDP. In the second quarter of 2013, the latest number available, the quarter-to-quarter increase in the ratio was faster than it was in any of the three preceding quarters.

The transition from depression to stagnation is largely made possible by two factors. First, the Greeks have lost one quarter of their economy, which includes an enormous drop in standard of living. Most Greeks have had to forfeit consumption that people in other industrialized countries take for granted. What remains is essentially the bare-bones kind of consumption that you realistically cannot sustain without in an industrialized country. At this “core consumption” level of economic activity, it is harder for people to cut away anything more. As a result, they will increase their efforts to protect what they have left.

Secondly, years of austerity has recalibrated the Greek welfare state. The reason why it ran enormous deficits for years is that its tax rates could not produce enough revenue for the spending that the welfare state required. This was a problem before the Great Recession but it exploded into pure urgency as the crisis started unfolding. Instead of trying to turn around the implosion of the economy, the EU and the Greek government decided to recalibrate the welfare state: taxes were raised to produce more revenue at a lower GDP, and spending programs were cut to spend less at that same lower GDP. Each new austerity program effectively constituted another recalibration. Eventually, during last year, the recalibration efforts caught up with the imploding GDP, and austerity tapered off.

Once you release an economy from its austerity stranglehold it will transition from decline to stagnation. However, it will not recover – other than marginally – for one very simple reason: the welfare state is now recalibrated to balance the budget at an abysmally low activity level. Therefore, as soon as economic activity picks up the government budget will suck in excessive amounts of money from the private sector, creating substantial surpluses early on in the recovery. Politicians who have fought the people to subject them to round after round of austerity will not be inclined to cut taxes; they will see the surpluses as yet another sign that “austerity worked”. While they throw victory parties, the economy continues to putter along at permanently higher unemployment and a permanently lower standard of living.

This is exactly what happened in Sweden in the ’90s (I have an entire chapter on that crisis in my upcoming book Industrial Poverty) and the Greek situation is not much different.

Yet despite glaring evidence to the contrary, there are people out there who willingly and eagerly claim that in the austerity war on the crisis, austerity won. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer, Derk Jan Eppink, Member of the EU Parliament from Belgium and vice president of the Parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group, has this to say:

Irish Premier Enda Kenny has announced his country will exit its bailout programme in December. When he took office in 2011, Ireland’s budget deficit was over 30 percent of GDP. Narrowing it to projections of 7.3 percent this year and 4.8 percent next, Kenny has restored market confidence in Dublin’s ability to sort out its long-term debts. Investors are again willing to buy Irish bonds, raising funds and lowering borrowing costs. In mid-2011, interest on Irish debt stood at 15 percent. Now it is below 4 percent and Ireland has raised sufficient cash balances to cover all its debt payments next year. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have both returned their Irish rating to investment grade. Without repairing its ability to manage its debts, Ireland’s government could not function for very long as a provider of essential public services. Irish recovery could not have happened without the fiscal consolidation which commentators attack as “austerity.”

It is interesting to notice what metrics Mr. Eppink uses to measure the Irish “success”. The austerity program has recalibrated the Irish welfare state to produce a budget balance at a vastly lower activity level than before the crisis. This means that the Irish government has no incentive to run a fiscal policy that brings the economy back to its higher activity levels; as in the Greek case, its tax-and-spend ratios will actually discourage private-sector growth beyond what is needed for the newly calibrated budget balance.

What this means in practice is easy to see in Eurostat employment numbers. Irish unemployment has fallen over the past two years, with total unemployment down from 15.1 percent in January 2012 to 12.3 percent in November 2013; during the same period of time youth unemployment declined from 31.1 percent to 24.8 percent. This looks like a solid recovery, especially since one in four unemployed aged 15-24 is no longer unemployed. However, if we cross-check these numbers with the employment ratio we get a somewhat different picture:

  • In the years before the crisis the employment ratio for 15-64 year-olds was 65-70 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 59.7 percent, with no visible trend either up or down;
  • In the years before the crisis Irish unemployment for the group aged 15-24 was 45-55 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 30.9 percent, with no visible trend either up or down.

It is troubling when unemployment falls but employment ratios remain steady. It means that people are either leaving Ireland in desperation or, more likely, that they are leaving the work force. A closer look at the enrollment in various income-security programs would probably give a detailed answer. (I will try to return to that later.)

A glance at GDP data also indicates stagnation rather than recovery. In the third quarter of 2013 the Irish seasonally adjusted, constant-price GDP grew by 1.7 percent over the same quarter in 2012. However, the four preceding quarters GDP contracted. There was more growth in the Irish economy in 2011 than what appears to be the case in 2013. Private consumption has been falling six of the last eight quarters, with entirely negative numbers thus far for 2013.

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: there is no Irish recovery under way. If anything, the end of the Irish austerity campaign has marked the starting point of economic stagnation for the Irish economy just as it has in Greece.