Tax Hikes in Sweden a Bad Idea

The Swedish Treasury secretary, Anders Borg, has been in office now for seven years. He is one of the longest lasting masters of government funds in the free world. I’ve had a lot of criticism for him over the years, but I also want to acknowledge that he has done some things right, at least given the circumstances.

Mr. Borg came into office after the 2006 parliamentary election, and was very soon hurled into the Great Recession. I really don’t envy his job: Swedish law mandates that the government prioritizes a balanced budget, annually, above all other economic policy goals. This is an easy priority to comply with in good times, but once a recession strikes government revenue takes a nose dive. In the elaborate European welfare states, government spending increases precisely when revenue declines. In other words, government budgets are built to open major deficits in recessions.

Like all other Treasury secretaries in a similar situation, Mr. Borg chose to fight the deficit. Early on, his fiscal policy was clumsy and came with ill-conceived spending cuts. His budgets were poorly written, sometimes with outright embarrassing analytical flaws. Over time, though, things got better on the analytical side and Mr. Borg persisted in pushing for a Swedish version of the Earned Income Tax Credit. As I explain at length in a chapter in my book Ending the Welfare State, the EITC is an inefficient way of cutting people’s tax burdens, primarily because it creates very steep marginal tax effects for low-income families. That said, in a country that has a history of having the world’s highest taxes it is better to introduce an EITC of sorts than to do nothing.

In the last year or two Mr. Borg has taken yet another step toward a more comprehensive fiscal policy. He has cited Keynesian theory as the source of inspiration for his fiscal policy. Last year he emphasized, several times, the need for fiscal stimulus to get the Swedish economy going. He pointed to a further expansion of the Swedish EITC as an example.

Today Mr. Borg still abides by a crude, textbook version of the Keynesian-Neoclassical synthesis. He still wants to counter swings in the business cycle with active, stabilizing fiscal policy. There is nothing wrong in this, except for two things: Mr. Borg is still determined to defend the indefensible welfare state – and you would have to accept the fact that Sweden is now out of its recession and heading for some kind of macroeconomic over-heating.

Leaving the indefensibility of the welfare state aside for now, the notion that Sweden is in a growth period is of bigger interest than it might seem at first. In claiming that he sees a recovery in the economy, Mr. Borg echoes similar sentiments from Eurocrats in Brussels. But just as it is wrong to say that Greece is on a macroeconomic rebound, it is simply bizarre to say that Sweden is out of the recession.

Let us look at some data from Eurostat to see where Sweden really is today:

  • The Swedish unemployment rate is currently reported by Swedish statistical agencies as 7.7 percent. According to Eurostat it has been at eight percent since 2010 with no real trend in either direction.
  • Youth unemployment is also trendless. After topping out at 26.7 percent during the crisis it is now steady around 24 percent.
  • GDP growth is equally unimpressive. In the third quarter of 2013 the Swedish economy grew by 0.7 percent over the same quarter in 2012. The average annual growth rate for the last four quarters is 0.8 percent.

These are not numbers that indicate any kind of over-heating in an economy. There is not even a hint of recovery here. Okun’s law says that an economy needs to grow at more than two percent per year to bring down unemployment; so far, the Swedish economy cannot even get to half that rate.

The only variable with any kind of positive trend is private consumption. In the third quarter of 2013 Swedish households increased their spending by 2.1 percent, adjusted for inflation, over the same quarter in 2012. This was the fifth quarter in a row with accelerating consumption growth, which could be taken as a sign of economic recovery. However, if we remove spending on housing from these numbers the average growth rate declines to approximately European average. The reason why we need to make this adjustment is that Swedish households are spending exceptional amounts on housing: there is practically no production of new homes, and population growth is among the highest in the industrialized world (due to large immigration from non-Western countries). As a result, Swedish households have been forced to basically mortgage the rest of their lives, with debt-to-disposable-income ratios in excess of 180 percent. By comparison, when the American housing bubble burst in 2008, the average U.S. household had a debt of 130 percent of their disposable income.

In short: what seems like a trend of recovery in Sweden’s private consumption is in reality a debt-driven housing spending spree. It cannot and will not bring the economy back to growth.

The saddest part of this is that Mr. Borg wants to quell an overheated economy that does not exist, by raising taxes. All that this will do is perpetuate the current situation with high unemployment, almost no growth – and dangerously indebted households. In fact, by raising taxes Mr. Borg could provoke an acute debt crisis: by taking more from the private sector he raises the likelihood that private disposable income will cease to grow in the next year or two. As this happens, the ratio of household debt to disposable income will rise again, but since it is now the denominator that is stagnating, the risk of bank panic is higher than if the numerator was accelerating.

In short: Mr. Borg could provoke a meltdown on the Swedish real estate market.

Again, I applaud Mr. Borg for wanting to build his fiscal policy on an analytical foundation. His problem is that he does not give himself enough time to do the analysis (and he certainly does not have access to adequate brainpower at the Treasury Department in Stockholm…). A growth period in need of any kind of fiscal-policy moderation would look more like the Swedish economy in the 1980s when unemployment was at two percent.

Yes, two percent.

In a way, the fact that Mr. Borg does not want to wait for full employment before he takes to growth-quelling policy measures is an indication of how the past couple of decades have changed people’s perception of the macroeconomic normal. This is not just the case in Sweden, but in Europe in general.

We have to watch out here in the United States so we don’t fall for the same illusion.

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