Greece keeps pushing the currency union envelope. Mr. Tsipras, the socialist prime minister, is driven by his ideological convictions and therefore plays a different game than the leaders in Brussels with whom he is negotiating to keep his country afloat. The problem for the European leadership is that it seems incapable of understanding what role Tsipras’s ideology plays for his actions – Tsipras wants full independence for Greece so he can build his version of the socialist dreamland that now-defunct Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez created.
Rational arguments such as “property rights no longer exist in Venezuela” or “they have 60 percent inflation” and “crime is rampant and there is a shortage of almost every daily necessity” do not work on ideologues like Tsipras. That is the very problem with them. Therefore, you cannot reason with them as though they were swayed by the same type of “sensible” arguments that you are. But more importantly: so long as the EU leadership does not understand that politicians like Tsipras are ideologically opposed to everything that the EU stands for, they will not be able to have a rational conversation. There will be constant discords, where the EU leaders try to set goals that will help Greece stay inside the euro zone – and ultimately the EU – while Tsipras and others like him (think euro skeptics in Italy and Spain) will try to create circumstances that allow them to get what they want, namely out of the euro zone (and eventually the EU).
The biggest danger with this discord is that once the euro zone starts breaking apart, the retreat from the common currency will be disorderly. There is no doubt that the Bundesbank in Germany has a contingency plan for that disorderly dissolution, but it is far from certain that their plan will work. There are so many uncertain factors in this game that an even reasonably confident prediction is out of the question.
That said, there are some fixed points that can be put in the context of macroeconomic reasoning. That in turn should at least provide some insight into the best and worst case scenarios.
Before we get there, though, an update on the Greek situation, as reported by the EU Observer:
The stand-off between Greece and its lenders deepened over the weekend ahead of a meeting of euro finance ministers on Friday (24 April), with both sides exchanging barbs over the risk of a Greek default and its consequences for the eurozone. On Friday, Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem said both parties should avoid “a game of chicken to see who can stick it out longer. We have a joint interest to reach an agreement quickly”.
An agreement about what? If Greece secedes from the euro it can, at least theoretically, run away from its bailout-related deals. In practice, the EU would still want to enforce loan contract, but it is much more difficult with a country that has a currency of its own – a currency that in all likelihood will be depreciating rapidly.
As for the IMF, Greece would have to deal with them separately, but it could do so much more so on its own terms once outside of the euro zone.
In fairness, though, it looks like the full extent of the Greek situation is beginning to dawn on at least some EU leaders. The EU Observer again:
EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) leaders warned that Greece had to make quick progress to finalise a list of reforms that would enable it to receive a €7.2 billion loan. But they hinted that a Greek default could be managed by the eurozone. “More work, I say much more work is needed now. And it’s urgent,” said European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi in Washington, where he was attending the IMF’s Spring meeting. “We are better equipped than we were in 2012, 2011, and 2010,” he added, referring to the years when fears of a eurozone break-up were at a high. “Having said that, we are certainly entering into uncharted waters if the crisis were to precipitate, and it is very premature to make any speculation about it,” Draghi also said.
So what would happen if Greece seceded from the euro? Well, the EU Observer article brushes on that subject:
Greek finance minister Yanis Varaoufakis, for his part, warned that his country’s exit would cause major problems for the rest of the region. “Some claim that the rest of Europe has been ring-fenced from Greece and that the ECB has tools at its disposal to amputate Greece, if need be, cauterize the wound and allow the rest of the eurozone to carry on,” he said on Spain’s La Sexta channel “Once the idea enters peoples’ minds that monetary union is not forever, speculation begins … who’s next? That question is the solvent of any monetary union. Sooner or later it’s going to start raising interest rates, political tensions, capital flight.”
This is a key statement. Some would interpret it as Greek leverage in negotiations with Brussels. However, the correct way to read it is as a blunt warning of what is to come: sooner or later Greece will leave the currency union, and it will do so like the men who escaped Alcatraz in 1962. Once someone has done what everyone thought was impossible, then just as Mr. Varaoufakis says, the only question on everyone’s mind will be: who’s next?
British Member of the European Parliament for the UKIP, Mr. Nigel Farage, made a great point recently when appearing on BBC (at about 2:25 into the video): the initial effect of a Greek currency secession is going to be a boost in growth as the currency depreciates. This growth spurt will inspire other struggling euro-zone states to consider a return to their national currency. Once the secession movement gets off ground, it is uncertain how many states will actually reintroduce their national currency, but it would be reasonable to expect a first round of secession to sweep from Athens to Lisbon.
The short-term financial turmoil aside, the most likely effect will be a southern European currency war. The four countries that have historically had weak currencies will find themselves returning to that position, only with an even deeper macroeconomic ditch to climb out of. The only moving part of their economies is, actually, exports, which will get a boost from a rapid currency depreciation. At the same time, that depreciation will be a major conduit for imported inflation, which in turn will eat its way into the economy a bit after the exports boom has gained momentum. The more the currency depreciates, the stronger the imported-inflation effect will be.
Inflation will have major consequences for the government budget. Depending on what type of inflation indexation is built into the welfare state’s entitlement programs, the cost of government spending will rise more or less with inflation. While inflation can also be beneficial to the revenue side of the state budget, it negatively influences the purchasing power of households and generally (but not always) depresses business profitability. As a result, domestic economic activity slows down, causing the tax base to stagnate.
And this is where the major test comes for currency secessionists: how will they handle their budget problems? With weak currencies they will have a hard time selling their treasury bonds on the international market; they can load up their banks – a likely scenario in Greece where a Syriza government could even go as far as to nationalize banks – but as the Great Recession demonstrated, leaning on banks for funding a government deficit is a particularly bad idea. When banks are overloaded with bad government debt in the midst of a macroeconomic crisis, then suddenly it is 2009 again.
Very briefly, then: once the euro zone starts falling apart the first ones to leave will face very difficult challenges. That is not to say that the remaining euro zone countries will have a better life – it is very likely that the euro zone itself won’t survive the 2017 French presidential election – but once the Southern Rim has left the euro zone the remaining countries will have a somewhat easier time following an orderly retreat plan. In fact, it would not be surprising if Germany, Austria and the BeNeLux countries remained in a “core” currency union – a Gross-Deutsch Mark, if you will. That currency could actually become a stabilizing point for a post-euro EU.
Still, even with an anchor currency in the heart of the EU, an implosion of the euro will have major negative effects for the European economy. What will those effects look like? That is a subject for another article.
It looks like Greek Prime Minister Tsipras is finally getting the country to where he was heading all the time: out of the euro. After winning an extension in February of current bailout conditions, the Syriza-led government has made practically no progress toward accommodating the demands from its creditors. On the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that Tsipras is trying to manipulate the circumstances to where he has no choice but to declare a Greek euro exit.
Yesterday the Greek blog MacroPolis explained:
The Greek government faces a dire financial situation in the coming weeks, especially as lenders are unlikely to relent on the conditions of last month’s loan extension. In fact, Tsipras’ insistence on of pushing for a “political deal” is going nowhere: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he will meet in Berlin next Monday, 23 March, is unlikely to deviate from her preference for technical, rule-based solutions. Therefore, the risk of an internal default due to the inability to pay salaries and pensions is not negligible.
Tsipras knows that he has no leverage. If he wanted to keep Greece in the euro zone he would never have run the negotiations to this point. But he has, which strongly suggests that I was correct when I wrote on March 1:
Prime minister Tsipras wants Greece to secede from the euro zone so he can pursue his Chavista socialist agenda on his own. He cannot do that without a national currency, but so long as a large majority of Greeks want to keep the euro he cannot outright declare currency independence. He needs to build momentum and create the right kind of political circumstances. This extension of status quo gives him four more months to do so.
It is very likely that the Germans have called Syriza’s game. As a counter-strategy they refuse to concede anything more, but are instead doubling down on their demands and conditions for a bailout. Reports the Telegraph:
Greece’s hard-Left government has been told to redouble its reform efforts in a bid to begin rebuilding the trust of its eurozone partners after a marathon four-hour meeting of European leaders in the early hours of Friday morning. With the clock ticking on securing the country’s future in the eurozone, Athens was urged to speed up its commitment to raising revenues and overhauling its economy by Germany’s chancellor.
Apparently, Chancellor Merkel has decided to play the chicken race that Alex Tsipras has been begging for ever since he was elected. According to the EU Observer, Merkel’s allies in the EU leadership have de facto made Tsipras an ultimatum:
Give us a list of reforms, and you might get the money you need, Alexis Tsipras was told at a three-hour meeting with select EU leaders on Thursday (19 March). The Greek prime minister met with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande. The heads of the EU Council and European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker were also present, as well as European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and Eurogroup chairman Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Tsipras was reminded that his government must stick to the Eurogroup’s previous, 20 February agreement. He was also told his partners are waiting for precise figures about the state of Greece’s finances and for a set of detailed reform proposals.
Merkel would not push Prime Minister Tsipras for the sake of saving him. She could not care less for a political half-wit from a broke-and-beaten Mediterranean outlier. No, her motives are at a much higher level. She has realized that the days are numbered for the common currency project. Greece is tugging away at its corner of the European currency; a party similar to Syriza is rapidly rising in Spanish politics, opening the possibility for Spain to eventually follow Greece toward currency secession; and then there is the constantly present threat of a President Le Pen in France whose first executive order would be to revive the franc.
On top of this Chancellor Merkel is looking at the exceptional depreciation of the euro over the past year. While this is good for exports, it has had no visible effect on domestic economic activity in the EU, especially not in the euro zone. The ECB has emptied out all its conventional monetary-policy measures and even resorted to unconventional stupidities like negative interest rates on bank overnight deposits. Yet none of this has helped get the European economy out of its state of stagnation.
Whichever way the chancellor looks, the euro is a lost cause. The remaining question then is: who is going to write the script for the end of the common currency? Is it going to be the rogues in Athens (and Madrid) or is it going to be the Germans? By being at least as principled as Tsipras, Angela Merkel is taking charge of the euro dissolution process. Her goal is to guarantee an orderly return to national currencies – and when that return will happen.
Prime Minister Tsipras can look wobbly and indecisive next to Merkel, but nobody should make the mistake of believing that the Syriza-led government eventually wants to stay in the euro. As Euractiv reports, the secessionist attitudes that characterize Syriza are not limited to economic issues:
The Syriza-led government will be against an Energy Union that undermines Greece’s national interests, including in its relations with Russia, said Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, who also ruled out any privatisation schemes for the country’s energy sector.
So there you have it. The journey toward “Grexit” continues. The only question is who will blink first – i.e., who is going to be the first to give up on the Greek euro membership? Will Merkel say “I’m firing you” or will Tsipras say “You can’t fire me, I quit”?
After a delay with its national accounts publications, Eurostat has now caught up. Fourth-quarter numbers are beginning to sip out, with the following press release last Friday:
Seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.3% in the euro area (EA18) and by 0.4% in the EU28 during the fourth quarter of 2014, compared with the previous quarter, according to flash estimates published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In the third quarter of 2014, GDP grew by 0.2% in the euro area and by 0.3% in the EU28.
More important, though, is the annual growth rate:
Compared with the same quarter of the previous year, seasonally adjusted GDP rose by 0.9% in the euro area and by 1.3% in the EU28 in the fourth quarter of 2014, after +0.8% and +1.3% respectively in the previous quarter. During the fourth quarter of 2014, GDP in the United States increased by … 2.5% (after +2.7% in the previous quarter).
The U.S. economy is still way ahead of Europe, and there are no signs of this parity shrinking. For the three countries where Eurostat has reported individual 2014 GDP numbers, inflation-adjusted growth rates are far from impressive:
- Germany: 1.61 percent;
- France: 0.38 percent;
- Greece: 0.87 percent.
For the two largest economies in the euro zone, Germany and France, the combined growth rate is 1.08 percent. That is a minuscule uptick over the second and third quarter annual growth rates of 0.99 and 1.02 percent, respectively. Furthermore, while the combined growth rate for Germany and France is slowly increasing, the individual growth rates for the two countries are going in different directions. Again, annual inflation-adjusted growth rates reported by quarter:
Frustrating comments are already pouring out over the internet. EUbusiness.co. says that the numbers are “too weak to convincingly signal a full-blown recovery”. They are absolutely right. Analysts quoted by EUbusiness.com attribute the slight uptick in growth to falling oil prices and a weaker euro. Both of these are external factors, which means that Europe still has no core growth power. It is also important to remember that the weak euro partly is attributable to concerns about the future of the currency. With Greece basically in open defiance of payment obligations and EU-imposed austerity programs, and with countries like Portugal and Italy likely to join Greece should Athens decide to secede from the currency union, there are complicated, long-term reasons for a weak euro.
One analyst suggests to EUbusiness.com that the fact that the ECB has basically eliminated interest rates is adding so much to the picture that it is time to talk about a European recovery:
The ECB’s version of so-called quantitative easing has already decreased government borrowing prices across most of the currency bloc and weakened the euro, which should help to boost exports in Europe. “For the first time in two years, we can say that the region is going for solid growth,” Anna Maria Grimaldi, an economist at Intesa Sanpaolo SpA in Milan, told Bloomberg News. “The euro area is supported by the very strong tailwinds of the fall of the euro, the fall of oil prices and the fall of interest rates sparked by ECB QE.”
However, as I explained last week, the zeroing of interest rates has at best led to a temporary boost in business investments. There are no signs of a permanent recovery.
I will repeat this ad nauseam: unlike the American economy, the European economy has no reason to recover.
The stagnant European economy does not need more bad news. Unfortunately, there is more coming. Business Insider reports:
The amazing collapse in German bond yields is continuing. Today, five-year bonds (or bunds) have a negative nominal return for the first time ever. That means that investors buying a 5-year bond on the market today will effectively be paying the German government for the privilege of owning some of its debt. This has been happening for some time now. In 2012, people were amazed when 6-month bund yields went into negative territory. In August, the two-year yield went negative too. Less than a month ago, the same thing happened with the country’s four-year bunds.
While there is a downward trend in bond yields in most euro-zone countries, there is a clear discrepancy between first-tier and second-tier euro states. Ten-year treasury bond yields, other than Germany:
- Austria, 0.71 percent, trending firmly downward; France, 0.83 percent, trending firmly downward; Netherlands, 0.68 percent, trending firmly downward; Italy, 1.87 percent, trending firmly downward.
A couple of second-tier examples:
- Ireland, 1.24 percent, trending weakly downward; Portugal, 2.69 percent, trending weakly downward.
Greece is the real outlier at 9.59 percent and an upward yield trend. But Greece is also a reason why Germany’s bond yields are turning negative. Although the Greek economy is no longer plunging into the dungeon of depression, it is not recovering. Basically, it is in a state of stagnation. Its very high unemployment and weak growth is coupled with an ongoing austerity program, imposed by the EU, the ECB and the IMF.
Add to that the political instability which, in late January, will probably lead to a new, radically leftist government. Syriza’s ideological point of gravity is the Chavista socialism that has been practiced in Venezuela over the past 10-15 years. They are also vocal opponents to the EU-imposed austerity programs, an opposition they would have to deliver on in case they want to stay relevant in Greek politics.
If Greece unilaterally ends its austerity program, it de facto means the beginning of their secession from the euro. That in turn would raise the possibility of other secessions, such as France, where a President Le Pen would begin her term in 2017 with a plan to reintroduce the franc. When that happens, the euro is history.
There is no history of anything similar happening in modern history, which makes it very difficult for anyone, economist or not, to predict what will happen. Europe’s political leaders will, of course, want to make the transition as smooth and predictable, but without experience to draw on there is a considerable risk that the process will be neither smooth nor politically controllable. Add to that the inability of econometricians to forecast the transition; based on the numerous examples of forecasting errors from the past couple of years, there is going to be little reliable support from the forecasting community for a rollback of the euro.
That is not to say the process cannot be a success. But the window of uncertainty is so large that it alone explains the investor flight to German treasury bonds.
This uncertainty is also throwing a wet blanket over almost the entire European economy, an economy that desperately needs growth and new jobs. Since 2010 the EU-28 economy has added 800,000 new jobs, an increase of 0.37 percent. For comparison, during the same time the American economy has added eleven million jobs, an increase of a healthy 8.5 percent.
The one good thing about the rising levels of frustration in Europe over the crisis, is that the public debate is being enriched with voices whose message might actually make a difference for the better. Today, a group of leading German economists has decided to speak up against the lax monetary policies of the ECB. This is a welcome contribution, but their contribution would be stronger and more to the point if they also learned a thing or two about what has actually brought Europe into the macroeconomic ditch.
Reports Benjamin Fox for the EU Observer:
The European Central Bank’s (ECB) plans to pump more cheap credit into banks risk undermining the long-term health of the eurozone, according to Germany’s leading economic expert group. The ECB’s “extensive quantitative easing measures” posed “risks for long-term economic growth in the euro area, not least by dampening the member states’ willingness to implement reforms and consolidate their public finances”, the German Council of Economic Experts (GCEE) said in its annual report, published on Wednesday (12 November).
That monetary expansion is indeed a problem. In September 2014 the M1 money supply in the euro zone had grown by 6.5 percent over September 2013. Over the past 12 months the annual growth rate has averaged 5.86 percent, showing that monetary expansion in the euro zone is actually increasing. In fact, adjusted for the large expansions in M1 euro supply that resulted from an expansion of the monetary union, the current expansion rate appears to be the highest in the history of the euro (though that is just a preliminary observation – I am not completely done with the simulation).
If current-price GDP was growing at the same rate, then all the new money supply would be absorbed by transactions demand for money. But the euro-zone GDP is practically standing still, which means that all the new money supply is directed into the financial sector (theoretically known as “speculative demand for money”). That is where the real danger is in this situation.
Unfortunately, the German economists are not primarily worried that the ECB is destabilizing the European financial system. Their concern is instead that lax monetary policy discourages fiscal discipline among euro-zone governments. They appear to be stuck in the state of misinformation where budget deficits are keeping the euro-zone economy from recovering.
Benjamin Fox again:
The Bundesbank is also uncomfortable about the ECB’s increasingly activist role in the bond and securities markets. … But the German call for the Frankfurt-based bank to limit its intervention remains a minority position. Most governments in and outside the eurozone, together with the International Monetary Fund, want the ECB to provide increased monetary stimulus. Last week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also urged the bank to “employ all monetary, fiscal and structural reform policies at their disposal” to stimulate growth in the currency bloc, including a “commitment to sizeable asset purchases (“quantitative easing”) until inflation is back on track”.
Can any economist at the ECB, the IMF or the OECD please explain how the ECB’s money pumping is going to create inflation in any other way than the traditional monetary kind? Nothing in either my academic training as an economist or my 14 years of practicing economics as a Ph.D. gives me the slightest clue how this is supposed to work.
In fact, the only inflation I can see coming out of this would be strictly monetary – and that is not what anyone in Europe wants. Monetary inflation, unlike inflation caused by rising economic activity, can run amok deep into the double digits, as it has in Argentina and Venezuela.
It is good that leading German economists are worried about the ECB’s activities. Time now for them to take the next step and study the true structure of the economic crisis.
Retail trade is one of the better indicators of how an economy is doing. It is an immediate “gauge” of both confidence and private finances of consumers. Therefore, given the overall stagnant nature of the European economy, the latest report on retail trade from Eurostat has some valuable information in it:
The 1.3% decrease in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with August 2014, is due to falls of 2.2% for the non-food sector and 0.1% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel rose by 0.9%. In the EU28, the 1.2% decrease in retail trade is due to a fall of 2.1% for the non-food sector, while “Food, drinks and tobacco” remained stable and automotive fuel increased by 0.4%. The highest increases in total retail trade were registered in Malta (+1.0%), Luxembourg (+0.9%), Hungary and Slovakia (both +0.7%), and the largest decreases in Germany (-3.2%), Portugal (-2.5%) and Poland (-2.4%).
Month-to-month changes are not that important. The one detail here to note, though, is the big contraction in Germany. It is a small but noteworthy sign that the German economy, as this blog has reported before, is leaving a period of exports-driven growth and returning to the new European normal, namely stagnation.
The Eurostat memo also reported annual data:
The 0.6% increase in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with September 2013, is due to rises of 0.9% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, of 0.6% for the non-food sector and of 0.5% for automotive fuel. In the EU28, the 1.0% increase in retail trade is due to rises of 1.5% for the non-food sector and 1.2% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel fell by 0.2%. The highest increases in total retail trade were observed in Luxembourg (+12.3%), Estonia (+9.1%) and Bulgaria (+5.6%), while decreases were recorded in Finland (-3.2%), Poland (-1.8%), Denmark and Germany (both -0.8%).
Again Germany shows up on the negative side, reinforcing the impression that the largest economy in Europe is no longer its locomotive.
On the upside, there is one interesting detail worth noting. Greece has experienced three months in a row of annual, inflation-adjusted retail sales increases: four percent in June, 4.6 percent in July and 7.4 percent in August.
Is this an early sign that the Greek depression is coming to an end? Let’s hope so.
Back in college I had a friend who blamed a cut in Swedish government-provided student loans on Moammar Ghadaffi. It was a tongue-in-cheek exercise, of course, designed to prove that if you want to, you can make any argument credible so long as you can make people believe your chain of cause and effect.
For some reason, that idea is widespread in politics, only there it is taken with the utmost seriousness. Political leaders can make the most remarkable connections between otherwise totally unrelated events. This is particularly true in economics and policy. The latest example is the stubborn European recession and what it is blamed on. Reports the EU Observer:
The European Commission lowered its growth forecasts for the EU and the eurozone area, blaming the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and urging governments to do more to spur investments. According to the Autumn forecast growth in the EU is now expected to be 1.3 percent of GDP this year, compared to 1.6 percent projected in spring, while the eurozone economy is to grow by only 0.8 percent, compared to the earlier projection of 1.2 percent.
I have lost count of how many times that European forecasters have had to adjust their forecasts downward. Not to brag (actually, yes, to brag…) I have not changed my forecast at all since I formulated Europe’s current problem more than two years ago. That problem is a structurally unaffordable welfare state combined with policies that try to preserve the welfare state inside a tax base that is structurally incapable of paying for it. This structural imbalance keeps the economy in a state of stagnation for an indefinite future.
The EU’s adjusted outlook once again confirms that I am right. The EU Observer again:
For 2015, the outlook is also pessimistic: the EU economy is expected to grow by 1.5 percent (down from 2 percent predicted in spring) and the eurozone by 1.1 percent (compared to the spring forecast of 1.7 percent). EU “growth” commissioner Jyrki Katainen admitted that forecasts are difficult to trust, especially since all other international institutions publishing economic forecasts “have been more often wrong than right” because there are so many variables on growth, employment, and investments.
Oh dear, there is so much to factor in… Seriously – it is the job of the economist to separate what matters from what does not matter, and then make his forecasts for the former while not being distracted by the latter.
This kind of excuse would not pass for a serious contribution here in the United States. But the Europeans are also trying to blame their years-long, endless recession on new events. Another article in the EU Observer:
Germany is on the brink of recession after recording its weakest export levels for five years. Data published by the Federal Statistics Office on Thursday (9 October) indicated that exports slumped by 5.8 percent between July and August, the sharpest monthly fall since 2009, at the height of the financial crisis. Imports also fell by 1.3 percent, suggesting that German consumers are also losing faith in the country’s economy. In a statement, the statistics office blamed late-falling summer vacations in some German regions and the Ukraine crisis for the fall in exports and imports.
But of course, there is no problem with the high taxes in Germany, or the rising energy costs as they close their nuclear reactors and try to rely on windmills instead… As share of GDP, taxes in Germany have increased from 42.6 percent ten years ago to 44.5 percent in 2013. This places Germany 12th among the 28 EU member states, and just a hair below the 45.3-percent EU average. But being average does not cut it when times are tough, it is a buyer’s market and the consumers who can actually afford to buy things are far away from your own country’s borders.
And, as noted, exports no longer serve as the locomotive of the German economy. Berlin simply cannot continue to suppress domestic demand for budget-balancing and ill-conceived energy reform reasons.
Back to the story about Germany:
The dismal statistics are the latest sign that Germany is facing an economic slowdown. In August, the ZEW think-tank’s index of financial market confidence, a trusted indicator of German economic sentiment, hit its lowest level since December 2012. The fall was attributed to the weak eurozone and fears about the EU’s ongoing sanctions battle with Russia. According to Eurostat, the EU’s data office, Germany’s output fell by 0.2 percent between April and June, after expanding by 0.8 percent in the first three months of 2014.
So what is the prevailing advice for how to get out of this state of endless stagnation?
On Thursday, four of the country’s top economic institutes urged chancellor Angela Merkel to increase public spending in a bid to stoke the economic engine. “On the spending side, public spending should be increased in those areas which can potentially boost growth,” the IFO institute in Munich, DIW of Berlin, RWI of Essen and IWH of Halle said in a joint report.
How fortunate that four of Germany’s most prominent think tanks all agree with each other. One might wonder why they need four think tanks of they all agree on something so profoundly important as how to revive the economy. Not one of them expresses concern that Germany might need just a tiny bit more economic freedom. On that note, if they are going to expand government spending without running budget deficits – what is the point in taking money away from the private sector and dole it out again through government? Private-sector activity is going to be further depressed by higher taxes: either you take away from what they spend or you depress their cash-flow safety margins and force them to depress spending in order to restore those safety margins.
There are two reasons why Germany cannot grow without exports. The first is high taxes, which up until 2012 were higher than in Greece. The second is uncertainty about the future. German consumers and at least smaller entrepreneurs have adjusted their spending downward on a permanent basis, simply because they feel overall less confident and less optimistic about the future. As Keynes explained in Chapter 16 of his General Theory, a depression of economic confidence is not a temporary matter:
An act of individual saving means — so to speak — a decision not to have dinner to-day. But it does not necessitate a decision to have dinner or to buy a pair of boots a week hence or a year hence or to consume any specified thing at any specified date. Thus it depresses the business of preparing to-day’s dinner without stimulating the business of making ready for some future act of consumption. It is not a substitution of future consumption-demand for present consumption-demand, — it is a net diminution of such demand.
That downward adjustment in demand will become the new normal until consumers and entrepreneurs has a reason to become more optimistic about the future. Evidently, that is not happening in Germany.
Not in Greece either, by the way. From Euractiv:
Greece is “highly unlikely” to end its eurozone bailout programme without some new form of assistance that will require it to meet targets, a senior EU official said on Monday (3 November). “A completely clean exit is highly unlikely,” the official told reporters, on condition of anonymity. … The eurozone and IMF bailout support of €240 billion began in May 2010. Greece is in negotiation with EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund ahead of the expiry of its bailout package with the European Union on 31 December. … The official gave no details of what new aid might look like, but policymakers have said that the most likely tool is an Enhanced Conditions Credit Line, or ECCL, from the European Stability Mechanism. That means Greece would be under detailed surveillance from the European Commission, the EU executive, for the duration of the credit line. “There needs to be money available for drawing on,” the official said.
Money available for spending items that Greek taxpayers cannot afford. So long as those spending promises remain in place, Greece cannot regain its fiscal independence unless they massively raise taxes. That, in turn, would be like begging for an even deeper depression.
At least in the Greek case nobody is blaming the Klingon High Council for their bad economic situation. But unless the Europeans step up to the plate and take responsibility for their own economic failure, the entire continent will continue to dwell in the shadow realm between the economic wasteland and industrial poverty.
The political momentum has definitely turned against a unified Europe. Exhibit #1 is the referendum in Scotland:
Travelers to Scotland, beware. In buses, pubs and street rallies, people have only one thing on their mind these days: Scottish independence. They wear bumper stickers with “Yes” or “No thanks”, dye their hair white and blue, sing folk songs and hand out leaflets. Posters are everywhere. For the yes camp, it is about a nation going its own way, breaking away from a political elite in Westminister. To “naysayers”, it is a foolish decision instigated by populists, that will ruin two nations for generations to come. Both camps are virtually equal, with pollsters saying the referendum on Thursday (18 September) can go either way. The referendum will also have an impact on other independence-minded regions in the EU, such as Catalonia in Spain and Flanders in Belgium. Scotland will set a precedent for how Brussels deals with territories breaking off from an EU member state.
Alas, Exhibit #2, the independence movement in Catalonia:
Around 1.8 million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona on Thursday (12 September) calling for the right to vote on independence. The demonstration marks the beginning of a critical period in Barcelona-Madrid relations. Dressed in red and yellow – the national colours – people shouted “in-inde-indepedencia!” and “volem votar!” (we want to vote) while waving the Catalan independence flag. Almost a quarter of the 7.5 million Catalans celebrated Catalan National Day – La Diada – in the streets of Barcelona, according to the local police forces. The day commemorates Catalonia’s loss of independence in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, exactly 300 years ago. Earlier this year, the Catalan Parliament voted two-thirds in favour for a consultative referendum to be held on 9 November, asking the Catalans “whether Catalonia is a state” and “if yes, whether that state should be independent”. The central government in Madrid, however, has said that it has ”all the mechanisms in place” to prevent such a vote.
Catalonia is the most prosperous region in Spain, having paid a big price for the country’s ill-designed austerity measures. It would be foolish of the Madrid government to try to suppress the Catalonian independence movement. A much better way forward is to recognize the undercurrent of anti-EU sentiments that also fuel this independence movement. The harsh austerity policies over the past couple of years where imposed on Spain by Brussels; if Spain was independent of the EU or at least had the backbone to stand up to their mad policy ideas the Catalonians would have much less of a reason to want to secede.
Anti-EU sentiments also played a major role in Sweden, our Exhibit #3. Last Sunday’s election sent nationalist Swedish Democrats skyrocketing to a position as the nation’s third largest party. In addition to their criticism of the current immigration policies in Sweden, the SD party is the only outspoken party against Swedish EU membership. They loosely resemble other EU-critical parties, such as Exhibit #4 in Germany:
Germany’s anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD) got a further boost on Sunday (14 September) entering two more state parliaments following regional votes. “We are a party that is renewing the political landscape in Germany where people turn their back to traditional parties that have lost their profile,” said AfD party head Bernd Lucke. “One can’t deny it anymore: the citizens are thirsting for political change,” he added. Preliminary results suggest the right-wing party secured around 10.6 percent of the vote in Thuringia state and 12.2 percent in Brandenburg. The two states are traditionally seen as a power base of support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Founded 19 months ago, the AfD manifesto calls for a scrapping of the euro in favour of the German Deutsche Mark. The eurosceptic party has strongly criticised the eurozone bailouts and opposes the concentrated power base of the EU institutions in Brussels.
So long as the economic crisis continues it will be close to impossible for pro-EU politicians to gain back the momentum. And, as I have repeated ad nauseam, the crisis will not end until they structurally reform away the welfare state. Which, again, won’t happen.
The sad part of this is that the movements trying to roll back the EU for the most part want to do it to protect their national welfare states from EU-imposed austerity. The only real exception is UKIP which fundamentally is a libertarian party. But everywhere else the goal is to localize control over fiscal policy so that they can perpetuate their own version of the standard, redistributive welfare state.
In short: the way things are going now it is a safe bet that the EU will be history long before the European welfare state.
I have explained on numerous occasions that the European economy is not at all in recovery mode. Jobless numbers are frighteningly bad, the long-term trend is still pessimistic, GDP growth is so slow that there is a credible deflation threat hanging over Europe, the OECD recently wrote down its growth forecast for the global economy, including the EU. All in all, Europe is a slow-motion economic disaster.
Now British newspaper The Guardian reports of yet another dark cloud over the European economy:
The eurozone’s fragile economic recovery suffered a setback in the first quarter after slower-than-expected growth. The combined currency bloc scraped together growth of 0.2% between January and March, in line with growth in the previous quarter but disappointing expectations of 0.4% growth.
This amounts to 0.8 percent for the entire year, which is deeply insufficient to turn around the European economy. The best you can say about this growth figure it is yet another indicator that my forecast of Europe being stuck in long-term stagnation is correct. This long-term stagnation is not a recession – it is a new era for the European economy.
There was a huge divergence in fortunes, with Germany growing at the fastest rate of all 18 countries, with gross domestic product increasing by 0.8%. It followed 0.4% growth in Europe’s largest economy in the previous quarter. The pace of recovery also accelerated in Spain, with growth of 0.4% outpacing a 0.2% increase in GDP in the previous three months.
I have explained before that the German economy is growing because of its strong exports. The gains from the exports industry do not spread to the rest of the economy, as is evident from paltry domestic spending figures for the German economy. The same is, in all likelihood, true for the Spanish economy, whose national accounts I will take a look at as soon as time permits.
When exports drive a country’s GDP growth, the country is not in a sustained recovery. The only way a sustained recovery can happen is if private consumption and corporate investments increase together. That is not yet happening in Germany, and it is certainly not happening in Spain.
At the bottom of the pile was the Netherlands, which suffered a shock 1.4% contraction in GDP, reversing 1% growth in the previous quarter. Portugal’s economy shrank by 0.7%, following growth of 0.5% in the final three months of last year. The French and Italian economies were also dealt a blow, with zero growth in France and a 0.1% contraction in Italy in the first quarter. It followed 0.2% growth and 0.1% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Stagnation, for short. And the only remedy that Europe’s political leaders seem to be able to think of is to print even more money, to saturate the economy with liquidity and to thus depreciate the euro vs. other major currencies. But with the Federal Reserve continuing its Quantitative Easing policy and the Chinese facing major problems in their financial sector it is entirely possible that the attempts at eroding the value of the euro will be neutralized by similar attempts from two of the world’s other major central banks. That in turn will put a damper on exports and rob the Europeans of even the illusion that their GDP will at some point start growing again.
At the end of the day, the fact that this negative news disappoints so many people in Europe is yet another indicator that my new book, Industrial Poverty, out in late August, is badly needed.
The EU parliamentary elections have barely begun – they take place over a four-day stretch from Thursday to Sunday – before representatives of the European political establishment are out in media trying to explain away the surge in support for totalitarian parties. One of the most egregious examples is Wolfgang Schäuble, treasury secretary of the German government. The EU Business reports:
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble denied in an interview Friday that the rise of eurosceptics expected in weekend elections was due to austerity policies championed by Berlin. He was asked by The Wall Street Journal whether anticipated gains by populist and anti-EU parties in the European Parliament vote until Sunday would be the price to pay for years of belt-tightening. “Some will interpret it that way,” Schaeuble replied. “I think that’s wrong. You can see that our policy to stabilise the eurozone was successful.”
The reason why he can say this with a straight face is that his definition of “successful” is strictly limited to the fact that the EU, the ECB and the IMF – the Troika – forcefully backed by the German government, prevented a break-up of the euro zone. The Troika’s purpose with the 2012 wave of austerity policies that swept through primarily – but not exclusively – the southern rim of the European continent, was not to restore, or even open a path back to growth and full employment. The purpose was instead to end the surge in expectations that Greece and Italy were going to leave the euro zone. Policy makers and analysts in the inner circles of the Troika assumed that if they could put a leash on runaway government deficits the speculators waiting for the return of the Drakhma and the Lira would be convinced that nobody was about to exit the currency union.
In the short run, they were correct. In Greece, interest rates dropped almost as dramatically as they increased:
However, this decline could just as well be the result of the ECB’s highly irresponsible pledge to buy any amount of treasury bonds from any country within its jurisdiction. But more importantly, even if the austerity measures calmed down speculations about a currency secession, those measures did not solve the underlying macroeconomic crisis. Greece still suffers from 55-percent youth unemployment; the economy still is not growing but actually shrinking; improvements in the Greek government budget over the past year are entirely due to one-time measures related to austerity. Once these one-time effects have worked their way through the budget, there will be no lasting improvement left.
This also means that the long-term threat to the unity of the euro zone still remains. It has just fallen under the media radar for now.
Greece’s only long-term chance is that the Troika will declare austerity cease-fire. If that happens, the Greek economy will be granted some time to catch its breath and re-structure itself to function under the combination of eroded entitlements and higher taxes. Only then can the private sector begin to create jobs again – and only then will the long-term threat of a Greek secession from the euro go away permanently.
This is all common sense, founded in a sound, solid understanding of macroeconomics. Such understanding is, however, a scarce resource among political leaders, especially in Europe. As the EU Business article continues, Mr. Shäuble continues his ignorant rant:
[Schaeuble] also rejected that the tough fiscal medicine and economic restructuring [that] Germany promoted were the causes of high unemployment and recession in much of the single currency area, declaring “that is false”. “The long recession is the consequence of a financial crisis whose origin wasn’t in the eurozone,” he said, adding in a stab at the United States: “Remind me where Lehman Brothers was based.” The 2008 collapse of the US investment bank was the biggest bankruptcy in US history and sparked the global financial crisis from which the world economy is still recovering.
Yes, the myth that this was a financial crisis… If a financial crisis is going to cause a general economic recession, it needs to transmit the negative consequences of credit losses into the real sector of the economy. Consumers and businesses must be directly impacted by the credit losses in the financial system.
The problem is that there is really no evidence of such a transmission mechanism at work in 2008-2009. Put bluntly: if that transmission mechanism existed, one of its main effects would be a rise in interest rates on loans from banks to non-financial businesses. But no such increase took place. Quite the contrary, in fact, as I have explained at length: just as the financial crisis was supposed to cause a surge in interest rates, a wipe-out of credit available even to highly qualified borrowers, interest rates on business credit actually began declining.
Available evidence (which I plan to collect and thoroughly explain in a future publication; first, let’s get my book Industrial Poverty out on the market) clearly shows that there was a recession looming independently of the financial credit crunch. That crisis was already under way when the Lehman Brothers crash happened – and without that real-sector, independent downturn we would not be able to explain why the central bank policies to save the financial sector had no visible impact on the economic crisis.
In short: businesses and consumers stopped demanding credit because of a general sense of pessimism that emerges in all recessions. The problem with the Great Recession was that once growth slowed or turned negative, once unemployment rose, an entire cadre of policy makers, from the EU to the ECB to the German government, decided to make a bad macroeconomic situation even worse by raising taxes and cutting government spending.
In Greece, austerity made a bad situation worse. It does not matter how much Wolfgang Schäuble denies it – his opinion cannot change facts and solid macroeconomic analysis. In fact, even the IMF has come around on this issue.
Of course, Schäuble tries on last trick to save the unsalvageable:
Schaeuble added that “the unemployment that we have in all advanced countries, not just in the eurozone, has to do with the dramatic transformation of labour markets through technology”. “You no longer need the same number of employees to produce goods. You have different needs for skills and qualifications of young people.”
Of course. At no point in time since the first, primitive forms of manufacturing were invented back in the late Middle Ages, has there ever been any improvement in productivity. Only in the past five years has there been a spurt in productivity in European manufacturing…
Wolfgang Schäuble is either completely incompetent – which I doubt – or politically reckless. By defending austerity as a means to somehow improve people’s lives, he aligns his political views with those who believe that “higher goals” are more important in politics than the opportunity of private citizens to build their lives and carve out a path to prosperity for themselves and their families.
There is a name for such priorities. It is arrogance. When politicians ignore the fact that millions upon millions of people suffer as a result of their policies, those politicians have forfeited their credibility as participants in a democratic government.
It is understandable that Schäuble, somewhere, somehow, is trying to fend off the challenge that he and other pro-EU politicians face from the surging totalitarian movements across Europe. But you don’t defeat aggressive government expansionists by becoming one yourself. That is exactly what Schäuble can become if he sticks to his arrogant denial of facts and continues to believe that anti-democratic austerity policies can both save democracy and people’s jobs.