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European Council: wait and sink?

By JĂ©rĂ´me Creel, Paul Hubert and Francesco Saraceno

The European Council meeting being held at the end of the week should have been spent, according to the wishes of the French authorities, on renegotiating the European Fiscal Compact adopted on 2 March 2012. However, renegotiation has not been on the agenda. Alas, the Fiscal Compact does need to be re-opened for debate: it should be denounced for being poorly drafted, and its overly restrictive character needs to be reviewed; ultimately, the text should be amended. The focus of the debate on the structural deficit rule, which is unfairly described as the “golden rule”, is wide of the mark in so far as it is the rule on the reduction of public debt that is the more restrictive of the two rules included in the Fiscal Compact. This is the rule that demands to be discussed, and urgently, in order to avoid sinking deeper into a contagion of austerity plans that are doomed in advance…

The conflict over European growth between the French and Italians on the one side and the Germans on the other was probably defused by the agreement late last week with Spain in favour of a coordinated European recovery plan. The plan represents 1% of Europe’s GDP, i.e. 130 billion euros, though its contours and funding remain to be clarified. The slogan of the European Council has thus been, by a process of elimination, “banking union”, in an effort to prevent a new wave of banking and financial crises in the European Union. Is the creation of a banking union important? Certainly. Is it urgent? Less so than a return to growth, which, while it certainly cannot be decreed, can be prepared. Given the state of the current Fiscal Compact, we can conclude that what is being prepared is not economic growth, but recession [1].

The Fiscal Compact, which is contained in Title III of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, explicitly includes two fiscal rules. The first clarifies what constitutes a budgetary position that is “balanced or in surplus”, a term enshrined long ago in the Stability and Growth Pact. According to the Fiscal Compact of March 2012, a budgetary position that is “balanced or in surplus” means a structural deficit of at most 0.5% of GDP. The structural deficit is the cyclically adjusted public deficit, i.e. adjusted for the well-known automatic stabilizers; this includes interest charges, among other items. When the structural deficit is exceeded, apart from exceptional circumstances, e.g. a “significant” downturn in activity, an automatic adjustment mechanism, whose nature is not specified, must bring it back below this limit. The structural deficit rule is relaxed for Member States whose public debt is below 60% of GDP: the structural deficit ceiling is increased to 1% of GDP.

The second fiscal rule is also a requirement for euro zone Member States with a public debt in Maastricht terms that is greater than 60% of GDP. In 2012, this rule applies to 12 out of the 17 Member States of the euro zone. This second rule aims to reduce the public debt by one-twentieth every year. Unfortunately, the text adopted is poorly written and opens the door to different interpretations, as we show below. It is therefore inapplicable. Even worse, given the current state of the economy, this rule is the more restrictive of the two rules in the Fiscal Compact. It is therefore urgent to pay attention to it and modify it to make it enforceable.

According to Article 4 of the Treaty, “When the ratio of a Contracting Party’s general government debt to gross domestic product exceeds the 60% reference value…, that Contracting Party shall reduce it at an average rate of one-twentieth per year as a benchmark….” The problem is that “it”, which we have put in italics, refers to the public debt ratio rather than to the difference between the public debt and the 60% reference value. So, in 2012 should Germany, with a public debt in 2011 of a little more than 80% of GDP, reduce its debt by 4 GDP points (one-twentieth of 80% of GDP) or by 1 GDP point (one-twentieth of the difference with the reference value of 60% of GDP)? Legally, it is essential that a clear answer can be given to this kind of question.

Moreover, the Fiscal Compact is silent on the nature of the surplus to be used to reduce the debt: if, to leave room for maneuver in case of a cyclical deficit, this rule were to address the structural deficit — which would therefore need to be explained in the Compact — the debt rule would be even more restrictive than the golden rule: a structural surplus would be systematically required to reduce the public debt to 60% of GDP in the 12 Member States whose debt exceeds the reference value. Again, the formulation needs to be clear.

Suppose now that the “it” in Article 4 concerns the difference between the debt and the reference value, and that the rule on debt reduction applies to the entire public deficit. The question can then be asked, which of the two rules – the “golden rule” or the debt reduction rule – places greater restrictions on the Member States, and thus needs to be applied. We have set out, in an appendix [2], the small set of fiscal rules compatible with the Fiscal Compact. The total deficit is the sum of the cyclical deficit and the structural deficit. The cyclical deficit depends on the difference between actual and potential GDP, i.e. the output gap, which has an elasticity of 0.5 (average elasticity customary in the literature on the European countries, cf. OECD). The “golden rule” relates only to the structural deficit, while the debt reduction rule concerns the total public deficit, and thus depends on both the output gap and the structural deficit.

For what values of the public debt and the output gap is the “golden rule” more restrictive than the debt reduction rule? Answer: when the output gap is greater than 1 plus one-tenth of the difference between the original debt and the reference value. This means that, for a country like Germany, the debt reduction rule would predominate over the “golden rule” except in cases of very high growth: the real GDP would have to be at least two points higher than the potential GDP. According to the OECD economic forecast published in May 2012, Germany’s output gap in 2012 will be -0.8. The debt reduction rule is thus much more restrictive than the “golden rule”. This is also true for France (debt of 86% of GDP in 2011), which would have to have an output gap of at least 3.6 points for the “golden rule” to be binding; yet the OECD forecasts an output gap of -3.3 in 2012. The same holds true for all the countries in the euro zone with a debt greater than 60% of GDP, without exception.

Except in cases of very strong growth, the debt reduction component dominates the structural deficit component. Yet it is the latter that is the focus of all the attention.

When a treaty is open to such differences in interpretations, isn’t it normal to want to revise it? When a treaty requires intensifying austerity measures in an area like the euro zone, whose GDP is almost 4 percentage points below its potential, according to the estimates of an organization, the OECD, that is generally not suspected of overestimating the said potential, is it not desirable and urgent to renegotiate it?


[1] A recent post emphasized the risks of social instability and the potential losses that might result from austerity-induced contagion in the euro zone (cf. Creel, Timbeau and Weil, 2012).

[2] Annex:

We start by defining with def the total public deficit, which includes a structural component s and a cyclical component dc:

def = s + dc

All the variables are expressed as a proportion of GDP. The cyclical component is composed of the variation in the deficit that occurs, thanks principally to the action of the automatic stabilizers, when the economy deviates significantly from its potential. A reasonable estimate is that the deficit increases by 0.5 point per point of lost output. The cyclical component can thus be expressed as:

dc = – 0.5 y

where we define y as the output gap, i.e. the difference between GDP and its potential level.

The rules introduced by the fiscal compact can be expressed as follows:

s1 < 0.5,

that is, the structural deficit can never exceed 0.5% of GDP (s1 refers to the first aspect of the rule), and

def = – (b0 – 60)/20,

that is, the total deficit must be such that the public debt (expressed as a proportion of GDP) is reduced every year by one-twentieth of the difference between the initial public debt (b0) and the 60% reference level. The debt rule can thus be re-written in terms of the structural deficit as:

s2 = def – dc = 0.5 y – (b0 – 60)/20.

We thus have 2 possible cases for when the structural deficit component is less restrictive than the debt reduction component:

Case 1

s1 < s2 if y >1 + (b0 – 60)/10.

Assume the case of a debt level like Germany’s (b0 = 81.2 % of GDP). Case 1 implies that the structural deficit component will be less restrictive than the debt reduction component if and only if y > 3.12%, that is, if Germany has a GDP that is at least three points higher than its potential. If a country has a higher level of debt (e.g. Italy, at 120% of GDP), then y > 7%!

Case 2

If the debt reduction rule concerns the structural deficit (rather than the total public deficit), then we have:

s1 < 0.5

and

s2 = – (b0 – 60)/20

In this case, s1 < s2 if 1 < – (b0 – 60)/10, which will never happen so long as the public debt is greater than the reference level.

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