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.
For the people who live in the European Union, daily life offers challenges in the form of zero growth, high unemployment, lack of opportunity and a gloomy outlook on the future. For a macroeconomist, however, the EU is a formidable experiment that must not be left undocumented. The union was constructed based on the European tradition of welfare statism, right when the welfare state as a socio-economic construct was beginning to show clear signs of macroeconomic ailment. For unknown reasons – though probably ideological preferences played a good part – the architects of the EU misinterpreted the symptoms of macroeconomic ailment such as persistent budget deficits. They saw them as expressions of irresponsible budget policies and therefore institutionalized budget-balancing guidelines for member-state fiscal policies. Those guidelines became the EU’s own constitutional balanced-budget requirement, also known as the Stability and Growth Pact.
The Stability and Growth Pact was created essentially to secure the fiscal sustainability of the European welfare state. The problem is that the welfare state in itself is not fiscally sustainable. A wealth of literature (which I am currently working my way through as part of my next book project) and a plethora of compelling data together convincingly show that the welfare state is in fact the fiscal venom that causes governments to go into structural deficits. So far, though, the political leaders of the European Union have not understood that their practice of the Stability and Growth Pact – known as statist austerity – has driven the European economy into a permanent recession. Their governments, consuming up to half of GDP, are subjected to spending cuts and in turn subject the private sector to higher taxes, which in turn causes the private sector to contract its activity or at the very least keep it constant.
As statist austerity causes GDP to stagnate, the welfare state’s budget problems are exacerbated. More people request assistance from its entitlement programs, while fewer people pay taxes. The budget problems that statist austerity was aimed at solving – again in order to make the welfare state look fiscally sustainable – actually cause a new round of budget problems. In response, austerity-minded governments tighten the fiscal belt yet another notch.
All in order to make the welfare state more affordable to a shrinking economy. In other words, saving the welfare state is the prime directive of European fiscal policy.
American fiscal policy has a different purpose. It aims to help the economy grow and lower unemployment. Granted, far from everything that comes out of U.S. fiscal policy is helpful in that respect, but at least the basic course of direction is right. Therefore, when representatives of the United States Treasury look at Europe and try to figure out what on Earth is going on over there, it is hardly surprising that some eyebrows go up and some foreheads are wrinkled.
The United States warned Europe on Thursday (9 April) against relying too much on exports for growth, and urged officials to make more use of fiscal policy, saying stronger demand was essential. In its semiannual report on foreign-exchanges policies to Congress, the US Treasury Department gave a preview of the positions it will press on foreign policymakers during next week’s International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington. The world cannot rely on the United States to be the “only engine of demand,” the report insisted. It urged nations to use all tools available to accelerate growth and not rely only on their central banks to boost recovery.
Before we get to the accolades, a technical comment. Exports is also “demand”, though from foreign buyers. The Treasury economists should know better and use the term “domestic demand”.
Now for the accolades. It is refreshing and reassuring to see that the Obama administration’s Treasury understands how the economy works. This is not a sarcastic comment – this is a genuine word of appreciation. Europe, by contrast, is filled to the brim with economists and other fiscal-policy decision makers whose actions and decisions prove that they have basically no comprehension of macroeconomics whatsoever. An economy is driven by its demand side: household spending and business investments from the private side, and government spending. Since consumer spending is 65-75 percent of a well-functioning economy, the confidence and prosperity of the general population is quintessential to the survival, growth and prosperity of any nation.
Furthermore, businesses invest because they ultimately will sell something to the general public. Therefore, confident households create confident businesses. A strong, forward-looking economy spends 15-20 percent of GDP on business investments.
Without growth in these two private-sector spending categories, there will be no growth in the economy as a whole. The economists of the U.S. Treasury know this, and they operate based on this basic, common-sense macroeconomic knowledge. Their criticism of Europe’s governments for not understanding the same thing is highly valid and echoes, in fact, what I have been saying on this blog for three years.
But there is one more aspect to this that the Treasury economists have not brought up – at least not as quoted by Euractiv. Let’s get back to their story:
The report singled out Europe’s biggest economy, saying “stronger demand growth in Germany is absolutely essential, as it has been persistently weak.” The US Treasury argues that policy makers in the euro area need to use fiscal policies to complement the monetary stimulus that the European Central Bank is providing. … While growth in Europe has shown some recent signs of picking up, the region remains the sick man of the global economy.
The problem for the Europeans is that they cannot do this. They cannot use fiscal policy to stimulate aggregate demand, because if they do they have to abandon statist austerity. Welfare states would again be allowed to go into deficits.
There are many reasons why the Europeans cannot let that happen. The first and most immediate reason is called “Greece”. The EU is in a very tense showdown with the socialist Greek government over repayments of loans – loans that in turn were given as part of EU-enforced statist austerity. If the EU now abandoned its austerity policies, the Greeks would rightly ask “what about us??” and the 25-percent drop in GDP that followed the harsh implementation of statist austerity in the country.
Another reason for the EU to stick to its austerity guns is the long-term concern for the welfare state’s fiscal sustainability. The Europeans are almost unanimously behind their welfare states and they are willing to sacrifice enormously for their ideologically driven big government. They have convinced themselves that the welfare state is not, has not been, and will not be the cause of their macroeconomic ailment. Therefore, they will try as best they can to defend the indefensible, namely the fiscal sustainability of the welfare state; that defense will take priority over any measures to help the private sector grow and thrive.
For these reasons, and others, there is no hope for a growth-oriented fiscal policy in Europe.
Apparently, the realization that something is structurally wrong is beginning to set in on some key policy makers. Euractiv again:
Speaking ahead of next week’s meetings, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde also warned that global recovery remained ‘moderate and uneven’ with too many parts of the world not doing enough to enact reforms even as risks to financial stability are rising. Mediocre economic growth could become the “new reality,” leaving millions stuck without jobs and increasing the risks to global financial stability, she insisted.
Ms. Lagarde and others interested in the systemic roots of this growth crisis are more than welcome to read my book Industrial Poverty about the structural problems in the European economy.
Again, it is encouraging to see American government officials notice and basically correctly analyze the differences between Europe and the United States. What is needed now is that those officials speak up about why the Europeans are ailing, and what the consequences will be for them and the world economy if they insist on protecting their welfare states at all cost.
Perhaps a President Rand Paul can take it up a notch…
In my book Industrial Poverty I diagnose the European economic crisis as being a permanent state of economic stagnation, caused by a fiscally unsustainable welfare state. The deficits that plague the continent’s welfare states are caused by a structural imbalance between tax revenue growth and growth in government spending. In other words, the deficits that the EU-IMF-ECB troika and member-state governments have been fighting so hard over the past 5-6 years are actually in large part structural.
As I explain in this paper, you cannot fight structural deficits with business-cycle policy measures. That is what the Europeans have tried to do for half a decade now, to no avail. In fact, their problems have only gotten worse, with no recovery in sight.
Today I am happy to report on yet another depressing angle of the crisis. A structural budget deficit is a deficit that a government cannot pay for over a long period of time. While there is no set-in-stone definition of a structural deficit, the conventional definition has been that it is the deficit that remains when the economy is operating at full employment. However, the definition of full employment changes over time; what was considered serious unemployment in the 1980s is now acceptable as full employment in many countries. With that change, obviously the definition of the structural deficit would change as well, even though government has done nothing to reduce the deficit.
A better definition of a structural deficit is one that still rises above the regular business cycle but at the same time is independent of the level of employment. In the aforementioned paper I suggested a definition based on, at minimum, ten years of economic performance: a ten-year long trend in government spending (or a specific share thereof) is compared to a ten-year long trend in tax-base growth. If spending outgrows the tax base, then the government is having to deal with a structural deficit; if the tax base grows faster than spending, then there is a structural surplus in the government budget.
To get a good idea of whether or not Europe has a structural-deficit problem, I pulled the following numbers from the Eurostat database:
Government spending defined as welfare-state spending: housing and community development; health; culture, religion and recreation; education; and social protection; and
Current-price and inflation-adjusted growth in GDP.
Not all member states report these numbers down to the level needed for a ten-year trend study; in addition to 13 EU member states I also pulled data for Norway, which turned out to be interesting.
The results are as follows (time period 2004-2013). A ratio of 100 means a perfect growth balance where welfare-state spending is growing on par with the tax base; an index number below 100 is a structural deficit while an index number higher than 100 represents a structural surplus. For current-price GDP, four of the 14 countries actually run a surplus:
|CURRENT PRICE STRUCTURAL|
While the Polish government’s broadest possible tax base is growing by 120.5 euros per 100 euros of welfare-state spending, the Portuguese tax base only grows by 53 cents per euro of growth in welfare-state spending.
This indicates structural deficits in ten of these 14 countries. It does not mean that there is an actual deficit of this magnitude, but it means that the economy of these ten countries is unable to sustain the spending that goes out through their entitlement programs.
But that aside, it looks kind of good, doesn’t it, to have such a prominent welfare state as Sweden in the structural surplus category. Does that not mean that the welfare state can be paid for?
Let us answer that question with a look at the same spending numbers, but now compared to inflation-adjusted GDP:
|REAL GROWTH STRUCTURAL|
All of a sudden, Poland can only pay for 61.8 cents of every euro they spend on welfare-state programs. Sweden cannot pay for half of its welfare state. But worst of all: welfare-state spending in Portugal and Italy is so structurally under-funded that it outgrows the tax base by more than a euro, per euro in increased spending!
This means, in a nutshell, that the Portuguese and Italian governments draw taxes from a shrinking tax base to pay for what is undoubtedly an out-of-control welfare state.
Even if the actual growth of their tax revenues does not track the growth of GDP at all times, the GDP growth rate provides the most comprehensive picture of what the economy – and thereby taxpayers – could afford in terms of welfare-state spending. The bottom line for today, therefore, is that governments of welfare states from all corners of Europe are lucky if they see their tax revenues grow half as fast as their spending. And that is regardless of where the business cycle is: again, these numbers cover the period from 2004 through 2013.
Earlier this week I summed up some recent observations of macroeconomic differences between the United States and Europe. Those differences, which explain why the euro has plunged from $1.39 in May last year to its current $1.06, are not going to go away any time soon. I recently did an overview of the fundamentals that constitute the strength of the U.S. economy (see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4); today’s article takes a closer look at the European economy.*
As the latest national-accounts data from Eurostat reports, the European economy remains in a state of de facto stagnation. According to inflation-adjusted numbers, GDP growth for 2014 stood at 1.3 percent; while much better than 0.04 percent for 2013, a closer examination shows that it is neither impressive nor sustainable.
Unlike the growth in the U.S. economy, which originates in sustained growth of domestic, private-sector activity, Europe’s increase in growth is driven primarily by exports. In 2013 exports from the European Union grew by 2.16 percent in inflation-adjusted numbers, a number that increased to 3.53 percent in 2014.
There is a sharp contrast between these growth numbers and those for private consumption: -0.1 percent in 2013 turned into growth of 1.29 percent in 2014, hardly an impressive number.
To further emphasize the role of exports for Europe, consider the strong correlation between exports and business investments, vs. the apparent absence of consumption-investment correlation:
Since private consumption barely moves, businesses have no reason to invest for the domestic market. They therefore tailor their business expansions – to the extent such expansions take place – to fluctuations in foreign markets.
The dependency on exports is even more apparent at the member-state level. Over the past two years, exports has been the leading absorption variable in 17 of the 26 countries included here (Ireland and Luxembourg have not yet reported fourth-quarter data). In five of the countries exports was the only absorption category that shows any growth; in Spain private consumption barely squeezed into positive territory:
|Consumption||Investm.||Govt cons.||Exports||GDP avg|
The long-term trend of growing dependency on exports is visible across the board in the EU. From 2011 to 2014 (4th quarters), exports share of GDP increased in 23 of the 26 member states included here.
While there is nothing wrong inherently with growing exports, there is a problem when an economy almost entirely depends on exports. Contrary to prevailing wisdom among, primarily, European economists there is no lasting positive “multiplier” effect from exports to the rest of the economy – except, as mentioned, the business investments that relate specifically to exports.
The lack of positive multiplier effects from exports to, e.g., private consumption is reinforced by the fact that government spending is the strongest or second-strongest growth variable in 15 of the 26 countries. This is remarkable: for all of EU-28 government absorption grew at an annual rate of 0.6 percent per year over the 2013-2014 eight quarters. The fact that this was enough to finish second speaks volumes to the overall weakness of the European economy.
So long as this weakness remains, there will be no reversal of the long-term decline of EU economy.
*) Eurostat, 2005 chain-linked national accounts data.
I normally do not write about momentary events, such as the daily fluctuations on the international currency market. But today’s exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, which according to Bloomberg happens to be $1.06 per euro right now, is worth a broader analysis. The trend toward euro-dollar parity has gained a fair amount of attention in the media, and rightly so: when the euro was launched a decade and a half ago it was sold as a stellar currency, backed by some kind of European integrity, and certainty way above that flimsy greenback.
Reality turned out different. The euro and the dollar would have reached parity many years ago had it not been for the excessive money printing during Bernanke’s QE programs. But now that the Federal Reserve has cooled down its printing presses and the European Central Bank, on their end, have cranked up theirs, it is only logical that the two currencies are re-evaluated on the global currency market.
Immediately, one could question the case for parity based on the fact that the Federal Reserve Board of Governors meet tomorrow, Wednesday and likely will throw some cold water on the surge of the dollar. However, a postponed interest-rate hike will not make much of a difference over time: while only about three percent of all short-term rate changes are related to real-sector events, long-term trends are determined by the macroeconomic performance of the two economies. From this perspective, euro-dollar parity is a historic event. Its underlying cause is a long-term, widening gap between GDP growth, consumer spending, business investments and job creation in the United States and in Europe.
I have on several occasions analyzed the differences between the European and American economies. This is a good time for a quick recap. To begin with, the American economy is a much stronger job-producing machine than the European economy:
Our job creation record in this recovery is not exactly stellar, but our unemployment is nevertheless almost half of what it is in the euro zone. The EU as a whole is doing microscopically better than the euro zone, but that is almost entirely thanks to the comparatively positive trend in the British economy.
The American advantage in terms of job creation originates in a still-overall business friendly institutional framework. On the one hand, the Obama administration has a penchant for regulations; on the other hand this president has a comparatively modest spending record – far better than his predecessor – which has allowed Congress to combine largely unchanged taxes with an expansion of private-sector business opportunities. As a result, GDP growth is comparatively strong here:
It is important to understand the driving forces behind growth. If it is private consumption and business investments, it means that the private sector is doing well. In my recent blog series “State of the U.S. Economy” I pointed to these variables as being essential to the growth of our economy. What is particularly interesting is the visibly stronger confidence in business investments.
Therefore, we can safely conclude that we have a growth period in the U.S. economy that is well grounded and could last for a couple of more years.
The European economy, on the other hand, is not as lucky. Whatever growth they have appears to be driven by exports more than anything else. Private consumption is not playing a key role here:
The differences are striking in terms of private-consumption growth. Americans are now back at a level of consumption where they can maintain their standard of living and even start getting ahead a little bit. In Europe, by contrast, the standard of living has been declining consistently for over a decade: consumption growth has been below the Industrial Poverty threshold since the Millennium Recession.*
This points to a fundamental weakness in the European economy. While government has assumed more responsibilities for people’s lives in Europe than here – and as a result has a higher level of spending – it is important to understand that this does not compensate for lack of private-consumption growth. Government spending in Europe has been held back by welfare-statist austerity policies for a good six years now, which only pours more salt in the growth-stopping wounds on the European economy.
For all the macroeconomic reasons reported above, Europe will not return to growth any time soon. The American economy will continue to grow at moderate rates for another couple of years, during which we will see a reversal of the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar.
*) For an explanation of the two-percent growth threshold in private consumption, see my book Industrial Poverty, specifically the section about applying Okun’s Law to private consumption.
This the third installment about the current state of the U.S. economy analyzes consumer spending and consumer credit. Since private consumption constitutes almost 70 percent of GDP, it is of fundamental importance to have an essential understanding of how households spend money – and how they finance that spending.
As I noted in the first part of this article series, consumption as a share of the U.S. GDP has risen in recent years, claiming an almost four percentage points larger share of the economy today than it did 15 years ago. In the second part I explained that…
as the sole engine pulling the industrialized world forward, the United States is doing a reasonably good job. More details from the GDP growth numbers reinforce this conclusion. There is, e.g., private consumption which over the past three years has averaged 2.1 percent in annual growth. For 2014, though, the preliminary growth rate was 2.5 percent, a good but not excellent number. Underneath it, though, is some good news: spending on durable goods – household appliances, automobiles etc – has averaged 6.5 percent per year since 2012. This means two things: American families are improving their credit scores again after taking a beating in the trough of the Great Recession; and they are more optimistic about the future.
One of the concerns with strong growth in durable-goods spending is that it will come at the price of rising household indebtedness. Fortunately, American families in general are not going down the debt lane; perhaps having learned from the mortgage circus before the Great Recession, they seem to be holding back on overall borrowing:
- In 2008 American households had a gross debt of $14.2 trillion, equal to 133.1 percent of their disposable income;
- In 2010 their debt was down to $13.9 trillion, pushing the debt-to-income ratio down to 124.3 percent;
- In 2012 those numbers were down to $13.6 trillion and 110.6 percent, respectively.
In 2013 household debt started increasing again, exceeding $14 trillion (by $61bn) in Q3 of 2014, the first time in almost five years. The debt-to-income ratio continued to slide, flattening out at 107.7 percent inQ2 and Q3 of 2014.
However, a more detailed look at household debt shows a relationship between debt and spending on durable goods. The small rise in household debt since 2013 is due to a rise in consumer credit, i.e., the kind of borrowing that is, e.g., often used to buy cars.
After the deep dip during the opening of the recession, U.S. consumers soon regained confidence and began spending on long-term items. Almost immediately the ratio of consumer credit to disposable income started rising again. After it bottomed out at 21.4 percent in 2010 the ratio has increased steadily since then. The latest numbers reported by the Federal Reserve is 24.8 percent for Q3 2014.
Since 2010 durable-goods spending has grown by, on average, 4.9 percent annually in current prices. The growth rate for disposable income is almost exactly the same. Theoretically, this means that consumers should not have to increase their indebtedness as they spend more on durables, but the explanation for that increase is not by any means illogical. While the consumer credit ratio has increased, the ratio of mortgages to disposable income has declined steadily:
- In 2008 the ratio was 97.3 percent;
- In 2010 it had fallen to 90.7 percent;
- In 2012 it was down to 77.6 percent.
By Q3 2014 it had declined yet more, to 71.8 percent. Compared to the mortgage-to-income ratio of 2008, U.S. households have $4.7 trillion less in mortgage loans today. This opens up for the opportunity to borrow for other purposes, such as car loans.
It is encouraging to see that American households are better off and feel more confident about their future. All is not well, of course, but the slowly improving debt situation combined with the confidence in spending on durables is yet another encouraging sign that our economy is slowly moving down the right track.
Yesterday I reported some data showing that the U.S. economy is in good shape from a structural viewpoint. Household spending and business investments – domestic private-sector activity – today absorb a larger share of output than they did under the Bush Jr. administration. Government consumption and investment spending has taken a step back, and the foreign trade balance is in better shape today than at the height of the Bush business cycle.
Today, let’s look at the same macroeconomic data from another perspective.
2. A strong growth pattern
In terms of inflation-adjusted growth, the U.S. economy is doing relatively well. GDP growht is not great – but these numbers from 2009-2014 are far better than what we can find anywhere in the developed world:
- 2009 -2.76 percent
- 2010 2.53 percent
- 2011 1.6 percent
- 2012 2.32 percent
- 2013 2.09 percent
- 2014 2.41 percent
When an economy grows faster than two percent per year it provides opportunities for people to achieve a standard of living higher than what previous generations have accomplished. Growth below causes stagnation or even a decline in the average standard of living.* From this perspective the American economy is just about keeping its nose above the water. It could do much better, but two factors are holding us back: the Obama administration’s affinity for heavy-handed regulations, and the combined global effects of a China in recession, a Europe in stagnation and a Russia in Ukraine.
In other words, as the sole engine pulling the industrialized world forward, the United States is doing a reasonably good job. More details from the GDP growth numbers reinforce this conclusion. There is, e.g., private consumption which over the past three years has averaged 2.1 percent in annual growth. For 2014, though, the preliminary growth rate was 2.5 percent, a good but not excellent number. Underneath it, though, is some good news: spending on durable goods – household appliances, automobiles etc – has averaged 6.5 percent per year since 2012. This means two things: American families are improving their credit scores again after taking a beating in the trough of the Great Recession; and they are more optimistic about the future.
This optimism is corroborated by encouraging employment, which we will get to in the fourth and last part of this series.
But there is even more good news in the GDP growth numbers. Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF or business investments) has averaged a growth rate of 5.7 percent per year over the past three years. Even better: the growth rate is stabilizing. In the figure above, investments fluctuate wildly:
- Down 26.4 percent in Q2 of 2009;
- Up 21.1 percent in Q3 od 2010;
- Growth plummets to 1.3 percent in Q3 2011;
- Next growth peak is 13.5 percentin Q1 2012.
From thereon the amplitude declines, forming a “confidence cone” where the annual rate stabilizes around 5.7 percent per year. A good number, the stability of which makes it even more impressive.
At the same time, no story of capital formation is complete without a detailed look at what kinds of investments businesses make. Here, again, there is an encouraging pattern of stability. Fixed investment falls into two categories, non-residential and residential, with the former constituting about 80 percent of total fixed investment. In this group spending is divided into structures, equipment and intellectual property products. Again the proportions between the different categories remain stable over time, with the equipment category representing 45-47 percent of non-residential investments.
While homes construction was weak in 2014 – growing by only 1.64 percent – it finished strongly in the fourth quarter at 2.6 percent over Q4 2013. But the residential investment numbers for 2012 and 2013 were downright impressive: 13.5 and 12 percent, respectively.
Finally, a word about government spending. Many people unfamiliar with national accounts make the mistake of looking at total government outlays as share of GDP, whereupon they understandably get outraged about how big government is. However, in order to understand the role of government properly one has to remove the financial transactions from government spending: GDP only consists of payments for work – by labor or capital – or for products. A financial transaction such as a cash entitlement does not pay for work or products, and therefore has no place in GDP.
The government spending included in GDP is payments for teachers in public school, police officers and tax collectors, as well as products such as tasty lunches for middle-school kids and gasoline for the presidential motorcade. It is also investments such as new highways and faster trucks for the postal service.
This kind of government spending has actually been shrinking in the past few years:
- 2011 -3.04 percent;
- 2012 -1.45 percent;
- 2013 -1.49 percent; and
- 2014 -0.18 percent.
All in all, then, the U.S. economy is in reasonably good shape. This does not mean that cash entitlements such as food stamps are not a problem. They are. But with this stable macroeconomic foundation the U.S. economy is well suited to handle reforms to entitlement programs.
Check back after the weekend for the two remaining installments in this series.
* The two-percent mark is arrived at through an adaptation of Okun’s Law. See:
Larson, Sven: Industrial Poverty – Yesterday Sweden, Today Europe, Tomorrow America; Gower Applied Research, London, UK 2014.
The U.S. economy stands as a contrast to the European misery. This is particularly interesting given the fact that the United States has a president that came into office with the most radical statist agenda since the FDR presidency. In fact, President Obama still gets a lot of criticism from libertarians and conservatives for his ideological stance. Some of that criticism is no doubt well deserved, but there are areas where the president has earned more accolades than he gets.
In fact, if you listen to the common conservative wisdom about Obama, we have an economy that is on the verge of being socialized. That may very well be correct when it comes to regulatory incursions and irresponsible environmental policies, including the legislative monstrosity known as the Affordable Care Act. But beyond regulations and the occasional run-amok entitlement program, Obama’s economy has been reasonably good.
Last summer I expressed my appreciation of how well the American economy was doing given the circumstances – see the first, second and third parts – with particular emphasis on the permanent nature of the nation’s economic performance. In the third part I explained:
If the spending growth that drove the GDP number were of a more transitional nature, then I would agree with [the skeptics]. But … the numbers indicate strengthening confidence among consumers and entrepreneurs. It is very likely, therefore that this is a sustainable recovery. Not a perfect recovery, but a sustainable one. We should be happy for it. After all, things could be much worse. We could be Europe.
The most recent GDP numbers, covering all of 2014, point in the same direction. Let us go through them in four parts.
1. The composition of GDP
A healthy economy is heavily dominated by private-sector economic activity. Europe’s welfare states are dominated by foreign trade and government spending. Consequently, unemployment is almost twice as high as here in the United States, GDP is barely growing and the general economic outlook is dystopic.
As shown in Figure 1, the U.S. economy is better structured today than it was 15 years ago. In the fourth quarter of 2014 private consumption constituted 68.1 percent of the U.S. GDP (measured in 2009 chained dollars). That is up from 64.2 percent in Q1 1999. Under the first six years of the Obama presidency private consumption has averaged 68.1 percent of GDP. Compare that number to the 66.9-percent average under Bush Jr.
Another piece of good news is that gross fixed capital formation – business investments in street lingo – have returned to a healthy level of 15+ percent of GDP. At 17.2 percent in Q4 of 2014, investments are far higher than the 12.5-percent share they commanded five years earlier.
On this front the Obama years have not been quite as good as the preceding eight years under Bush: business investments under Bush averaged 17.7 percent of the economy, compared to 15.2 percent under Obama. That said, by global comparison American corporations are fairly confident in the future.
There are two more components of GDP, in both of which the Obama years have been better for the economy than the Bush years:
- Net exports, the balance between exports and imports, averaged -4.8 percent per year under Bush. The Obama years have thus far shown a better foreign trade balance, with a net exports only -2.9 percent per year. A smaller foreign trade deficit, in other words.
- Government consumption and investment has been smaller under Obama. This may come as a surprise to many, but since Obama took office federal, state and local spending has been, on average, 19.6 percent of the economy. The Bush years saw relatively more government spending, at 20.2 percent.
It is important to understand that these government-spending figures do not include cash entitlements and other financial outlays. To qualify as a GDP expenditure, a dollar must be spent either on compensating someone for work or on making an investment that, in turn, pays people for work. If I buy a share in Coca Cola it does not count toward GDP, but if Coca Cola builds a new production line it does count toward GDP.
With this qualification in mind, we can again conclude that Obama’s first six years have not done too much damage to the economy. On the contrary, the private sector continues to grow, government is showing some restraint and our perennial balance-of-payments deficit is actually in better shape than it has been in 15 years.
There is a lot more to be said about the current state of the U.S. economy. This is the first installment in a four-part series.
Sweden has joined the club of runaway monetary policy. From Reuters:
Sweden shocked markets on Thursday by introducing negative interest rates, launching bond purchases and saying it could take further steps to battle falling prices. The central bank joins a list of those including the European Central Bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, to resort to unconventional monetary policy steps to confront an unusual combination of economic problems.
No. The Federal Reserve has reversed course. And together with The Bank of England the Fed has been helped by the fact that it is operating in an economy with moderate taxes and relatively relaxed fiscal policy. The ECB has opened the monetary flood gates in an economy that is plagued by statist austerity and more or less zero growth.
In fact, the slight uptick in economic activity in the third quarter of 2014 that I reported on earlier this week is closely correlated to the all-out liquidity bombardment that the ECB began early summer last year. On the margin there are those who will take advantage of declining interest rates. According to data from the ECB, euro-denominated loans to non-financial corporations declined noticeably in 2014. In the group of loans with a 5-10 year rate fixation, the interest on loans above 1 million euros fell by more than one percentage point, from 2.9 percent to 1.73 percent. Other collateral loan categories saw smaller declines, but the downward trend is unmistakable.
It is likely that the same thing will happen in Sweden; the question is what effect lower interest rates will have on economic activity. In the EU, gross fixed capital formation – a.k.a., business investments – did actually increase in 2014. However, broken down by quarter, the annual growth rate (i.e., over the same quarter the previous year) looks much different:
- Q1 2014 up 3.78 percent;
- Q2 2014 up 2.35 percent;
- Q3 2014 up 1.86 percent.
In other words, the largest annual increase was recorded before the ECB declared a negative interest rate. It remains to be seen what happened in the fourth quarter, but even if there was an increase somewhere in the same territory as earlier in 2014, the big question is what the lasting impact is going to be on GDP growth and employment. One indicator of this is private consumption, which seems to have benefited a bit more from the ECB’s desperate interest rate cuts. Again measured as annual increases by quarter:
- Q1 2014 up 0.68 percent;
- Q2 2014 up 1.27 percent;
- Q3 2014 up 1.4 percent.
For the two years Q3 2012 to Q3 2014 the annual increase was, on average, 0.3 percent. Nothing to be jubilant about, but the modestly accelerating trend during 2014 indicates a stabilization (rather than some sort of genuine recovery).
What does this mean for Sweden? The problem with that particular country is that its private-consumption increase is inflated by recklessly high household debt levels. These levels, in turn, are held up by mortgage loans with absolutely irresponsible terms, such as interest-only payments or basically life-long maturity periods. As I explained in my book Industrial Poverty, if Swedish household debt had remained a constant share of disposable income from 2000 and on, its private-consumption growth rate would almost have stalled.
Put bluntly: Sweden appears to be in reasonable economic shape only because households have increased their debt as share of disposable income from 90 percent 15 years ago to 180 percent today.
What this means is, plain and simple, that it is exceptionally irresponsible to make more credit available at even lower costs. But it also means that on the margin, the Swedish Riksbank will get less new economic activity out of every negative interest point than the ECB gets; the higher the household debt, the less inclined banks are to let people pile on new debt.
Unfortunately, the Riksbank president, Mr. Stefan Ingves, does not see this problem. Reuters again:
“Should this not be enough, we want to be very clear that we are ready to do more,” said Central bank governor Stefan Ingves. “If more is needed, we are ready to make monetary policy even more expansionary.” The central bank said this would mean further repo-rate cuts, pushing out future rate hikes and increasing the purchases of government bonds or loans to companies via banks.
As the Reuters story also explains, the Riksbank is ready to move into debt monetization – unthinkable only a year ago:
The Riksbank said it would “soon” make purchases of nominal government bonds with maturities from 1 year up to around 5 years for a sum of 10 billion Swedish crowns ($1.17 billion). But with the ECB printing 60 billion euros a month in new money the Riksbank’s much more limited program may have little effect on bond yields – already at record lows. “In terms of GDP, the mini-QE program amounts to about 0.25 percent,” banking group Morgan Stanley said in a note. “Therefore, this measure should be seen more as a signal that the Riksbank is ready to do more and remain dovish for the foreseeable time.”
In other words, here again the marginal payoff is going to be small. The only exception would be if the Swedish government decides to throw out its balanced-budget rules and start a major spending drive funded by the Riksbank. This seems unthinkable today – just like negative interest rates and a QE program seemed unthinkable a year ago.
Quantitative Easing is not a recession remedy. It is a defensive monetary strategy. So is the negative interest rate. Together, these two measures declare that a government and its central bank has reached the end of the road in trying to get their economy moving again. The big problem for Europe, Sweden included, is that they have come to this point almost seven years after the Great Recession started. With a recovery being half-a-decade overdue, with tapped-out monetary policy and fiscal policies restrained by ill-designed balanced-budget measures, Europe is firmly planted on the road straight into industrial poverty.
Sweden, with its imbalanced real estate market and very deeply indebted households, is on the same road, only with a more volatile ride.
Today it is time to review in more detail the latest national accounts data from Eurostat. A disaggregation of the spending side of GDP reinforces my long-standing statement: the European economy is in a state of long-term stagnation.
To the numbers. We begin with private consumption, which is the driving force of all economic activity. It is not only a national-accounts category, but an indicator of how free and prosperous private citizens are to satisfy their own needs on their own terms. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic freedom that private consumption is the dominant absorption category.
Once consumer spending starts ticking up solidly, we can safely say there is a recovery under way. However, little is happening on the consumption front: over the past eight quarters (ending with Q3 2014) the private-consumption growth rate for the EU has been 0.3 percent per year. While the increase was stronger in 2014 than in 2013, only half of the EU member states experienced a growth in consumer spending of two percent or more in the last year. The three largest euro-zone countries, Germany, France and Italy, were all at 1.2 percent or less.
One bright spot in the consumption data: Greece, Spain and Portugal, the three member states that have been hit the hardest by statist austerity, now have an annual consumption growth rate well above 2.5 percent. Portugal has been above two percent for three quarters in a row; a closer look at these three countries is merited.
Overall, though, the statist-austerity policies during the Great Recession have caused a structural shift in the European economy that may be hard to reverse. From having been a consumer-based economy with strong exports, the EU has now basically been transformed into an exports-driven economy. On average, gross exports is larger as share of GDP than private consumption.
In theory, one could argue that this is a sign of free-market trade where people and businesses choose to buy what they want and need from abroad instead. I would be inclined to agree – but only in theory. In practice, if households and businesses freely made their choices on a global market, then rising exports would correlate with rising imports and, most importantly, rising private consumption. However, that is not the case in Europe. On average for the 28 EU member states,
- Exports has increased from an unweighted average of 59 percent of GDP in 2007 to an unweighted average of 70 percent in 2014;
- Net exports has also increases, from zero in 2007 (indicating trade balance) to six percent of GDP in 2014 (indicating a massive trade surplus).
If the rising exports had been a sign of increased participation in global trade on free-market terms, then either of two things would have happened: consumption would have increased as share of GDP or imports would have increased on par with exports. In reality, neither has happened, which leads to one of two conclusions:
- There has been a massive increase in corporate investments, which if true would indicate growing confidence in the future among Europe’s businesses; or
- Exports is the only category of the economy that is allowed to grow because it is not subject to the tight spending restrictions imposed by austerity.
Gross fixed capital formation, or “investments” as it is often casually referred to, was an unweighted average of 26 percent in the EU member states in 2007. Seven years later it had fallen to 21 percent. This is clearly a vote of no confidence from corporate Europe. Therefore, only one explanation remains: the discrepancy between on the one hand the rise in gross and net exports and, on the other hand, stagnant private consumption and a declining investment share, is the result of a fiscal policy driven by statist austerity.
The purpose of fiscal policy in Europe since at least the beginning of the Great Recession has been to balance the government budget at any cost. If this statist austerity leads to a painful decline in household consumption or corporate investments, then so be it. As shown by the numbers reported here, years of statist austerity have depressed corporate activity. In fixed prices, gross fixed capital formation in the EU has not increased since 2011:
- In the third quarter of 2011 businesses invested for 607.8 billion euros;
- In the third quarter of 2014 they invested for 602 billion euros.
The bottom line here is that the only form of economic activity that brings any kind of growth to the European economy is – you guessed it – exports. But it is not just any exports. It is exports outside of the EU. How do we know that? Because of the following two tables. First, the average annual private-consumption growth rate, reported quarterly, for the past eight quarters (ending Q3 2014):
|Private consumption growth|
With private consumption growing at less than one percent in 19 out of 28 countries, households in the EU do not form a good market for foreign exporters.
Things a not really better in the category of business investments:
|Gross fixed capital formation|
What this means, in plain English, is that the European economy still is not pulling itself out of its recession.
But is it not possible that things have changed recently? After all, the time series analyzed here end with the third quarter of 2014. There is always that possibility, but one indication that the answer is negative is the latest report on euro-zone inflation. From EU Business:
Eurozone consumer prices fell by a record 0.6 percent in January, EU data showed Friday, confirming deflation could be taking hold and putting pressure on a historic bond-buying plan by the ECB to deliver. The drop from minus 0.2 percent in December appears to back the European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a bond-buying spree to drive up prices. Plummeting world oil prices were largely to blame for the fall in the 19-country eurozone, already beset by weak economic growth and high unemployment, the EU’s data agency Eurostat said.
If the EU governments let declining oil prices trickle down to consumers – and avoid raising taxes in response – there could be a positive reaction in private consumption. However, lower gasoline and home heating costs will not be enough to turn around the European economy.
More on that later, though. For now, the conclusion is that Europe is going nowhere.