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Important change of course at the Elysée Palace. Austerity is no longer the priority

By Xavier Timbeau, Twitter: @XTimbeau

(published in Le Monde on Thursday 16 January 2014, p. 17)

When he was elected François Hollande made fiscal discipline his main goal. The 2008 crisis was continuing to have an impact on the developed economies; in the face of a sovereign debt crisis, Europe’s governments had been implementing austerity measures that were to cause a second recession, a “double dip”, to use the language of economists. For example, when François Hollande came to power, the situation in France seemed disastrous: the public deficit was 5.2%, with a rise in the public debt of more than 600 billion euros since 2008 along with a 2-point rise in unemployment (to 9.6% of the workforce). The pressure was intense, and, the euro zone states were falling like dominos, with Spain and Italy in danger of following Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In this context, it seemed that only budgetary discipline could help Germany to support a faltering euro zone.

Yet the worst was still to come. By underestimating the magnitude of the fiscal multipliers (the impact of fiscal policy on activity), as was eventually recognized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission, and as we had pointed out in July 2012, the consequences of generalizing this unprecedented fiscal effort throughout the European Union were dismissed.

What Francois Hollande had presumed would be a painful recovery preceding a rebound that would open up new possibilities proved instead to be a period of economic stagnation, where rising unemployment went in hand with bad fiscal news. When the fiscal multiplier is high, nothing works. The budget efforts were weighing down economic activity, and there was no real re-absorption of the government deficits. If this infamous multiplier had been low, François Hollande’s strategy – and that of the euro zone as a whole – would have worked. But the multiplier is not at our beck and call; it was the result of an economic situation in which the balance sheets of agents were degraded, with the banks suffocating and expectations dire.

The second part of François Hollande’s five-year term, which the press conference of 14 January 2014 was to launch, is now much more complicated than expected. Instead of a recovery in public finances, the debt has barely been stabilized despite an incredible effort. Instead of a strong recovery, what we have is, in the understated language of the INSEE, a “sluggish recovery”, which really amounts to continuing recession, with unemployment rising relentlessly. Our businesses are anaemic, and to try to restore their margins, the tax credit for competitiveness and employment (the “CICE”), inspired by the Gallois report, has not really injected new blood.

To lower the cost of labour without increasing the deficit, households, though exhausted, have to be hit again. The fiscal multiplier is still high, and growth, along with a reversal in the trend in unemployment, is being postponed. Worse, the commitment to Brussels to reduce the public deficit (a structural effort of 0.8 GDP point by the end of the five-years, i.e. 50 billion euros in total) will postpone a reduction in unemployment until after 2017. The patient may well die from the cure, and at best it will be Hollande’s successor in the 2017 elections, which he’s lost in advance, who might hope to reap the benefits of a policy that prioritized deficit reduction at the worst possible time.

The responsibility pact now proposed by François Hollande is setting out a different path, a different choice. Instead of austerity, a reduction in the cost of labour is to be financed not by taxes but by fiscal spending (amounting to 1 GDP point). The bet is that the growth stimulated will bring in additional revenue to meet the commitments on the public deficit. A reduction in social charges of thirty billion euros was announced, replacing the current CICE (20 billion). This means an additional 10 billion euros that can be obtained by companies that are to engage in collective bargaining under the watchful eye of a bipartisan watchdog. While this does not simplify the complex CICE, it will promote social dialogue.

On the other hand, François Hollande confirmed that the target for cutting public expenditure remains, i.e. 16 billion euros in 2015 and 18 billion in 2016 and 2017, for a total of 50 billion, with no increase on previous announcements. The CICE was partially funded by an increase in VAT (6 billion euros from 2014) and environmental taxes (4 billion). Replacing the CICE with cuts in social charges gives room for finesse: if companies benefit from the lower labour costs to boost their profits, then taxes on these profits will reduce the bill for the state by 10 billion euros (one-third of 30 billion). If, however, they increase employment and wages or lower their prices or invest, then there will be an increase in activity and the financing will come through growth.

Compared with France’s budget commitments to Brussels (an 0.8 point reduction in the structural deficit every year), there will be a 20 billion euro fiscal stimulus based on lowering labour costs by 2017. This GDP point could lead to the creation of 250,000 jobs by 2017 and allow a one-point drop in unemployment. This is a substantial change of course from the priority given up to now to deficit reduction. A choice has been made to focus on business and push companies to create new activity or jobs through a pact. This is a significant step, but there is still more to be done to put an end to austerity, to repair the social damage done and to take radical action to reduce unemployment.

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