Europe Goes Back to Big Spending?

Europe’s political leaders are getting increasingly desperate, especially since the European Central Bank’s aggressively expansionary monetary policy is proving ineffective. The more money the ECB prints, the worse the euro-zone economy performs.

The desperation is now at such a level that even the president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, is calling for EU governments to start big spending programs. Writes Benjamin Fox at EU Observer:

The European Central Bank (ECB) is preparing to step up its attempts to breathe life into the eurozone’s stagnant economy. During a speech in the US on Friday (22 August), ECB chief Mario Draghi called on eurozone treasuries to take fresh steps to stimulate demand amid signs that the bloc’s tepid recovery is stalling. “It may be useful to have a discussion on the overall fiscal stance of the euro area,” Draghi told delegates at a meeting of financiers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, adding that governments should shift towards “a more growth-friendly overall fiscal stance.” “The risks of ‘doing too little’…outweigh those of ‘doing too much’”, he added.

Some trivia first. If you want to be rich, you have a condo on Manhattan. If you actually are rich, you have an oceanfront property in West Palm Beach. If you are genuinely wealthy you have a second home in Jackson Hole. The only people who live in Jackson Hole permanently are dyed-in-the-wool Wyomingites like former Vice President Dick Cheney (a very nice man whom I have had the honor of meeting a couple of times). It is a cold place with short, mildly warm summers and long, unforgiving winters. It is also breathtakingly beautiful.

Now for the real story… There is no doubt that Draghi is beyond worried. He should be: his monetary policy is useless. Europe is in the liquidity trap, and the European Central Bank’s expansionist monetary policy is part of the reason for this. For almost a year now Draghi has pushed the ECB to arrogantly violate the principles upon which the Bank was founded. He has printed money at a pace that by comparison almost makes Ben Bernanke look like a monetarist scrooge. More importantly, the ECB has de facto bailed out euro-zone countries even though that is very much against the statutes upon which the bank was founded. They have pushed interest rates through the floor, punishing banks for overnight lending to the bank, and they have a formal Quantitative Easing program in their back pocket.

Furthermore, the ECB was an active party in the austerity programs designed to save Europe’s welfare states in the midst of the crisis. Those programs exacerbated the crisis by suppressing activity in the private sector in order to make the welfare states look fiscally sustainable. Now Draghi is asking the same governments that he helped bully into austerity to stop trying to save their welfare states and instead be concerned with GDP growth.

Superficially this sounds like an opening toward a fiscal policy that uses private-sector metrics to measure its success. However, it is highly doubtful that Draghi and, especially, the governments of the EU’s member states, would be ready to actually do what is needed to get the European economy growing again. The first part of such a strategy would be to a combination of tax cuts and reforms to reduce and eventually eliminate the massive, redistributive entitlement programs that constitute Europe’s welfare states.

The second thing needed is a monetary policy that does not provide those same welfare states with a large supply of liquidity. The more cheap money welfare states have access to, the less inclined their governments are going to be to want to reform away their entitlement programs. On the contrary, they are going to want to preserve those programs as best they can.

Therefore, the last thing the ECB wants to do right now is to launch a QE program. Which, as the EU Observer story reports, is exactly what the ECB has in mind:

The Frankfurt-based bank is preparing to belatedly follow the lead of the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England by launching its own programme of quantitative easing (QE) – creating money to buy financial assets.

This comes on the heels of the Bank’s new policy to increase credit supply to commercial banks on the condition that they in turn increase lending to non-financial corporations. The bizarre part of this is that in an economy that is stagnant at best, contracting at worst, there is no demand for more credit among non-financial corporations. It really does not matter if banks throw money after manufacturers, trucking companies, real estate developers… they are not going to expand their businesses unless there is someone there to buy their goods and services. If there is no buyer out there, why waste time and money on producing the product – and why take on debt to do it?

I have reported in numerous articles recently on how the European economy is not going anywhere. Growth is anemic with a negative outlook. Unemployment is stuck at almost twice the U.S. level and the overall fiscal situation of EU member states has not improved one iota despite more than three years of harsh, welfare-state saving austerity.

As yet more evidence of a stagnant Europe, Eurostat’s flash inflation estimate for August says prices increased by 0.3 percent on an annual basis. This is a further weakening of inflation and reinforces my point that unless the European economy starts moving again, it will find itself in actual deflation very soon. But the macroeconomic consequences of deflation set in earlier than formal deflation, as economic agents build it into their expectations. It looks very much as if that has now happened.

Deflation is dangerous, but it is not a problem in itself. It is a very serious symptom of an economy in depression. It is important to follow the causal chain backward and understand how the macroeconomic system brings about deflation. This blog provides that analysis; very few others attempt to do so. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard over at the good British newspaper Guardian has demonstrated good insight, and a recent article by David Brady and Michael Spence of the Hoover Institution provided some very important perspectives. But so far insights about the systemic nature of the crisis are not very widely spread.

The only advice being dispensed with some consistency is, as mentioned, the one about more government spending. Dan Steinbock of the India, China and America Institute is an example of the growing choir behind that idea. He does so, however, in a somewhat convoluted fashion. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer he discusses the macroeconomic differences between Europe and America, though in a fashion that almost makes you believe he is a regular reader of this blog:

Half a decade after the financial crisis, the United States is recovering, but Europe is suffering a lost decade. Why? In the second quarter, the US economy grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4 percent, surpassing expectations. In the same time period, economic growth in the eurozone slowed to a halt (0.2%), well before the impact of the sanctions imposed on and by Russia over Ukraine. Germany’s economy contracted (-0.6%). France’s continued to stagnate (-0.1%) and Italy’s took a dive (-0.8%). How did this new status quo come about?

He is correct about the American economy widening its gap vs. Europe, he is correct about the Italian economy, about the French economy, and about the stagnant nature of the euro-zone economy. What he does not get right is his answer to the question why the European economy has once again ground to a halt:

[In] the eurozone, real GDP growth contracted last year and shrank in the ongoing second quarter, while inflation plunged to a 4.5 year low. Europe’s core economies performed dismally. In Germany, foreign trade and investment were the weak spots. The country could still achieve close to 2 percent growth in 2014-2016 until growth is likely to decelerate to 1.5 percent by late decade. In France, President Francois Hollande has already pledged €30 billion in tax breaks and hopes to cut public spending by €50 billion by 2017. Nevertheless, French growth stayed in 0.1-0.2 percent in the 1st quarter.

I explained the weaknesses of the French and German economies already in January. Nothing has changed for the better since then, especially not in France.

Then Steinbock proceeds to make a brave attempt to explain the depth of the European economic crisis:

Fiscal austerity and falling consumer confidence are preventing domestic demand from rebounding, while investment and jobs linger in the private sector. Pierre Gattaz, head of the largest employers union in France, has called the economic situation “catastrophic.” As France is at a standstill, Paris has all but scrapped the target to shrink its deficit. … The new stance is to avoid an explicit confrontation with Germany, but to redefine austerity vis-à-vis budgetary reforms.

It is unclear what Steinbock means by this. He appears to miss the point that there are two kinds of austerity: that which aims to save government and that which aims to grow the private sector. The two are mutually exclusive, both in theory and in practice. One might suspect that Steinbock refers to the government-first version, since that is the prevailing version in Europe. However, that makes it even more unclear what Steinbock has in mind when he talks about “budgetary reforms” – an educated guess would be the relaxation of the Stability and Growth Pact so that the French government, among others, can spend more frivolously.

Such a relaxation would not contribute anything for the better. All it would do is open for more government spending. Steinbock does not make entirely clear whether or not he recommends more government spending. His article, however, seems to lean in favor of that, and I strongly disagree with him on that point for reasons I have explained on many occasions. Let’s just summarize by noting that if Europe is going to replace government-first austerity with government-first spending, then it opens up an entirely new dimension of the continent’s crisis. That dimension is in itself so ominous it requires its own detailed analysis.

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