Social action, but no end of the crisis

Evaluation of the five-year economic programme (2012-2017)

By Eric Heyer, Mathieu Plane, Xavier Timbeau

The initial decisions of the five-year programme are coming amidst an extremely difficult and very uncertain economic situation. In a recent OFCE Note (No. 23 of 26 July 2012), we first analyze the macroeconomic context for François Hollande’s five-year programme and the XIVth legislature. This analysis details the likely consequences for the next five years of the strategy currently being implemented in Europe. We evaluate both the cost to the public finances as well as the impact on economic activity, employment and the distribution of income. In part two, we analyze the public policy choices being given priority by the new government, including both those aimed at the young (generation contracts, jobs of the future), at some seniors (revision of the pension reform), and at the middle and lower classes (allowance for the start of school, boost to the minimum wage, Livret A bank accounts, rent control, revised taxation of overtime), as well as those intended to revive certain public expenditures that are deemed essential (public jobs in education, the justice system and the police in the “public finance” section, and public early childhood services).

François Hollande was elected President of the French Republic at a time when France and Europe are going through an unprecedented crisis. Unemployment in metropolitan France has increased by over 2 percentage points since the crisis began and is now (in ILO terms, 9.6% of the workforce in first quarter 2012) approaching the record levels of 1997 (10.5%). Gross domestic product per capita in terms of purchasing power has fallen since 2008 by 3%. If the growth trend for the five years preceding the crisis had continued at that same rate from 2008 until early 2012, GDP per capita would now be 8% higher than it is. The current account has deteriorated during the crisis by 1.5 GDP points (25.7 billion euros, 10 billion of which is for the oil bill), thus worsening France’s net balance of trade by 7.8 GDP points. The public debt increased by 577 billion (nearly 30 GDP points), and at the beginning of 2012 represented almost 90% of GDP. Industry has paid a heavy price for the crisis (almost 300,000 jobs lost), with all signs indicating that the job losses and closures of industrial sites might be irreversible.

Yet this dire situation, which can be chalked up to the crisis that began in 2008, is not over. Due to the impact of austerity policies implemented at a time of panic at seeing financing of the public debt dry up, the sovereign debt crisis is threatening the euro zone with a prolonged recession in 2012 and 2013. And the even worse scenario looming on the horizon – the disintegration of the euro zone – would transform the threats of recession into the risk of a major depression.

Assessments of the situation differ depending on the elements available. Some measures have been implemented by decree, while others are being discussed by the legislature, but the proposed bills do permit a quantitative analysis. Others are in the planning stage, with the main trade-offs still to be made, so our assessment tries to explore the main points.

Our assessment of the economic strategy for the five-year programme does not stop there. The outlines of the premises for a strategy to end the crisis can now be seen. The deficit reduction commitments and the initial steps taken in this direction in the budget packages in July 2012, such as those announced during the budget orientation debate of June 2012, point to a strategy whose first step is the achievement of a reduction in the public deficit to 3% of GDP by the end of 2013, regardless of the cost. Based on this fiscal virtue, this amounts to a strategy to end the crisis by stabilizing the state of the public accounts, thereby reassuring the financial markets and other economic agents and establishing the conditions for a strong future recovery. This strategy is based on cutting public expenditures and raising taxes (see the “public finance” section, government tax proposals and the taxation of the oil companies).

This strategy for ending the crisis is risky, to say the least, because it does not take full account of the crisis facing Europe today. It might be justified if we were already on course to end the crisis and if the point were simply to set priorities. But Europe remains in a situation of extreme uncertainty, living in the expectation of a massive failure of one or another Member State in the euro zone, fearing the collapse of this or that financial institution, and suffering the consequences of a spiral of austerity that is being fueled by rising sovereign interest rates. In this situation, everything is coming together to strengthen the existence of a liquidity trap and to generate high fiscal multipliers. Given this, ex ante reductions in the deficit through tax hikes and spending cuts is weighing heavily on activity, and thus limiting or even cancelling out any actual deficit reductions. The factors pushing up the public debt are not being reversed, and the reduction in activity is heightening the risk that the unsustainable private debt will be socialized. The increase in sovereign interest rates is being fueled by an inability to meet deficit reduction targets and by rising public debt, and is thus pushing public deficits higher, forcing even more austerity.

One response to this dynamic that is bringing about the collapse of the euro would be one form or another of pooling public debts in Europe. This would require relatively complete control of the budgets of member countries by a federal body with strong democratic legitimacy. A response like this would therefore mean “more Europe”, and would make it possible to define “more moderate” austerity policies for France as well as its major trading partners. It would make putting an end to involuntary mass unemployment and the liquidity trap prerequisites to an improvement in the public finances. It would also make it possible to ensure the sustainability of public finances without leading to the lost decades that are now gestating.

In the first part of the Note, we analyze the macroeconomic context for François Hollande’s five-year programme and the XIVth legislature. This analysis details the likely consequences for the next five years of the strategy currently being implemented in Europe. The value of the fiscal multiplier is a critical parameter, and we show that the current strategy is valid only if the multipliers are low (i.e. on the order of 0.5). However, a slew of empirical evidence indicates that, in the exceptional situation we are experiencing today, the budget and fiscal multipliers may be larger than 0.5 (between 1 and 1.5, see the Note). We detail in a second part the measures taken in the Supplementary Budget Act of July 2012 (for 2012) and the elements outlined in the budget orientation debate in preparation for the Budget Act for 2013 and for the period 2012-2017. To succeed in reducing the public deficit to 3%, it seems that there must be over 10 billion euros in additional tax revenue or in savings on expenditure, ex ante.

We then present an evaluation of eleven measures. Guillaume Allègre, Marion Cochard and Mathieu Plane have estimated that the implementation of the contrat de génération [“generation contract”] could create between 50,000 and 100,000 jobs, at the cost of a strong deadweight effect. Eric Heyer and Mathieu Plane point out that in the short term, subsidized emplois avenir [“jobs for the future”]-type contracts can help to reduce unemployment. Eric Heyer shows that the revision of taxation on overtime will help to cut the public deficit by 4 billion euros, without hurting the labour market. Guillaume Allègre discusses the consequences of increasing the Allocation de rentrée scolaire [allowance for the start of school] and shows that it mainly benefits the lowest five deciles in terms of standard of living. Henri Sterdyniak analyzes the possibilities for fiscal reform. The point is not to evaluate the government’s proposals for fiscal reform, but to provide a comprehensive overview of the current system’s margin for change and its inconsistencies. Henri Sterdyniak and Gérard Cornilleau evaluate the increased opportunities for retiring at age 60 and analyze the possible paths to a more large-scale reform of the pension system. Hélène Périvier evaluates the possibilities for an early childhood public service, the eventual cost of which could be covered in part by an increase in activity that would generate more than 4 billion euros. Eric Heyer and Mathieu Plane analyze the impact of a boost in the minimum wage (SMIC) and conclude that, given the small spillover of increases in the SMIC onto the rest of the wage structure, the impact on the cost of labour is limited by the greater reduction in social charges on low wages. While the effect on employment is small, it would cost the public purse 240 million euros. Sabine Le Bayon, Pierre Madec and Christine Rifflart evaluate rent control. Hervé Péléraux discusses the compensation of Livret A bank accounts and the impact of doubling their ceiling. Céline Antonin and Evens Salies evaluate the new taxes on the oil companies, which could provide 550 million euros in tax revenue in 2012, at the risk that this tax might ultimately be passed on to the end consumer.

Obama 2012: “Yes, we care!”

By Frédéric Gannon (Université du Havre) and Vincent Touzé

On Thursday, 28 June 2012, the United States Supreme Court delivered its verdict. The principle that individuals are obliged to take out health insurance or else face a financial penalty, a central plank in the 2010 reform [1] of the health insurance system (the Affordable Care Act [2]), was held to be constitutional. This reform had been adopted in a difficult political context. It includes a variety of measures intended to significantly reduce the number of Americans without health coverage. Although it will increase federal spending, new revenues and spending cuts will make it possible to reduce the deficit.

From September 2009 to March 2010, there was a lengthy process of drafting and approving the law, with an uncertain outcome due to the lack of a majority in the Senate [3]. Since the law passed by the House of Representatives and signed on 23 March 2010 by President Obama differed from the version passed by the Senate, amendments were introduced in a Reconciliation Act that was passed on March 30th. Opponents of the reform (26 states, numerous citizens and the National Federation of Independent Business) then decided to take the fight to the US Supreme Court. Their hopes rested mainly on the possible unconstitutionality of the law, which centered on the individual’s obligation to take out health insurance, called the “individual mandate”, and on the expansion of the Medicaid public insurance program.

The favourable judgment of the Supreme Court was obtained with a narrow majority: five judges voted for [4] and four against [5]. The political inclinations of the judges did not seem to have worked against the law, since Chief Justice John G. Roberts, an appointee of George W. Bush, gave his approval. The Supreme Court majority considered that the financial penalty for a failure to take out insurance is a tax [6] and that it had no cause to rule on the merits of such a tax. It passed this responsibility to Congress (the upper and lower houses) which, in this case, has already debated and approved the law. Consequently, this point of law is valid.

According to the Supreme Court, the financial penalty for failing to purchase health insurance could be viewed as an individual obligation to purchase [7], and “the Commerce Clause does not give Congress that power”. But from a functional standpoint, this penalty can be regarded as a tax, in which case Congress has discretion to “lay and collect Taxes” (Taxing Clause). Hence the positive verdict of the Supreme Court. However, the Court believes that “the Medicaid expansion violates the Constitution” because the “threatened loss of over 10 percent of a State’s overall budget is economic dragooning that leaves the States with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion”.

The Supreme Court decision represents a major victory for President Barack Obama, who had made a reform to ensure more equal access to the health insurance system one of the spearheads of his 2008 election campaign. His Democratic predecessor in the White House, Bill Clinton, previously had to abandon a similar reform due to fierce opposition from the Republicans and growing divisions among the Democrats. In order to give himself every chance of success, Obama has had to be more strategic in the programming of both the reform and the way it was presented [8]. To do this, he also assembled a team of experienced specialists [9].

The Act represents a real cultural revolution in a country where the health insurance system excludes nearly 50 million people. Besides the individual mandate requiring Americans to purchase health insurance, the ACA’s main measures are:

  • The creation of “exchanges” for insurance contracts where people can buy health coverage, with a government subsidy that depends on the level of income;
  • Expansion of the Medicaid public health insurance program [10] (public coverage for all households with incomes below 133% of the federal poverty level) and financial penalties on states that choose not to implement this expansion (elimination of all federal funding of the Medicaid program);
  • A requirement that employers offer health insurance to their employees (application of financial penalties if the obligation is not met, with exceptions for small businesses);
  • New regulations on the private insurance market (obligation to offer coverage to all individuals, with no conditions on their health status).

Beginning in 2014, millions of uninsured American households should benefit from the expansion of Medicaid, which the Supreme Court has now ruled unconstitutional – this raises numerous questions [11]. How many States will be tempted not to expand Medicaid? What are the consequences for the poor households [12] who were to benefit from this expansion? Will they have the means to afford subsidized private insurance [13]? Will they be penalized financially if they do not buy insurance? Will they be encouraged to migrate to States that have adopted the expansion [14]? It is reasonable to expect that few States [15] will boycott the expansion of Medicaid, as the ACA offers them other strong incentives (federal assumption of 100% of the additional cost from 2014 to 2016, then 95% after 2017, and 90% after 2020; loss of some federal funds if no expansion). However, adjustments in the law will likely be useful if policymakers want to avoid excluding those who are too poor to afford subsidized private insurance.

The law will come into force gradually, with the various measures to apply from 2014. According to the latest report by the Congressional Budget Office (2012), annual government expenditure (expansion of Medicaid and private insurance subsidies) should rise by about $265 billion per year [16] by 2022 (the estimated total cost between 2012 and 2022 is $1,762 billion), and the number of uninsured should fall by about 33 million [17]. The reform also provides for an increase in tax revenue (higher compulsory levies and new taxes) and a reduction in federal spending (primarily substitutions between the expanded Medicaid program and the old program). This will result in amply offsetting the cost of the reform. In a previous report in March 2011, the CBO estimated that the total reduction in the deficit over the period 2012-2021 will come to $210 billion. In the name of hallowed liberties, however, there is still strong opposition to the individual mandate [18], but over time it can be hoped that this mandatory principle will come to be viewed first and foremost as a basic right that protects all citizens.

[1] For an overview of the health insurance system and the reform, see Christine Rifflart and Vincent Touzé, “La réforme du système d’assurance santé américain”, Lettre de l’OFCE,  n°321, 21 June 2010. Also see the Wikipedia article on this subject.

[2] This legislation reconciles the two laws, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act.

[3] “Health Care Reform: Recent Developments”, The New York Times, June 29, 2012.

[4] Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor, along with Chief Judge John G. Roberts.

[5] Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

[6] Floyd Norris, “Justices Allow the Term ‘Tax’ to Embrace ‘Penalty’”, The New York Times, June 28, 2012.

[7] The legal position of the Obama administration has been to argue that the portion of the obligation to purchase insurance tantamount to a tax is the penalty paid by those who do not meet this requirement. This penalty has a regulatory function: it is designed based on the logic of an incentive, and not from the perspective of new tax revenue. Judge Jeffrey Sutton explained that if the government had clearly specified that the obligation to buy insurance was a tax, it would have been easier to justify in terms of its constitutionality. Most tax allowances or tax rebates are positive incentives (tax breaks on the acquisition of cleaner vehicles, for example). The health insurance requirement acts instead as a negative incentive by imposing a penalty / fine on those who decide not to buy insurance. Faced with these alternatives, they will choose in all rationality – according to a Pigouvian perspective – the option that they consider the most profitable or the least costly.

[8] Ezra Klein, “Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Health-Care Reform”, The Washington Post, July 26, 2009.

[9] Robert Pear, “Obama Health Team Turns to Carrying Out Law”, The New York Times, April 18, 2010.

[10] Medicaid is a public health insurance program for the poorest households (about 35 million beneficiaries). The numerous criteria (income, age, degree of invalidity, state of health, etc.) lead to excluding a non-negligible portion of society’s poorest. Hence more than 20 million people living below the federal poverty level do not have access to Medicaid. On the other hand, Medicare, the other public health insurance program, which is only for those aged 65 and over, broadly covers this age group.

[11] Urban Institute-Health Policy Center, “Supreme Court Decision on the Affordable Care Act: What it Means for Medicaid”, Policy Briefs, June 28, 2012.

[12] Genevieve M. Kenney, Lisa Dubay, Stephen Zuckerman and Michael Huntress, “Making the Medicaid Expansion an ACA Option: How Many Low-Income Americans Could Remain Uninsured?”, Policy Briefs, Urban Institute – Health Policy Center, June 29, 2012.

[13] In the absence of an expansion of Medicaid, their health insurance spending will be capped at 2% of their income.

[14] This notion of voting with their feet was put forward in an article by Charles M. Tiebout (1956): “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures”, The Journal of Political Economy, 1956, vol. 64/5, pp. 416-424.

[15] Brett Norman, “Lew: ‘Vast majority’ of states will expand Medicaid”, Politico, 1st July 2012.

[16] In 2022, 136 billion dollars will finance public health insurance for 17 million poor people (expansion of Medicaid) and 127 billion dollars will go to subsidies for the purchase of private insurance by 18 million people.

[17] In 2022, the 27 million uninsured remaining will consist of illegal immigrants (ineligible for public and private insurance programs) and those eligible for Medicaid who do not want to take out insurance as well as those ineligible for Medicaid who also do not want insurance.

[18] Susan Stamper Brown, “Time To Clean Up The Obamacare Mess”, The Western Center for Journalism, June 26, 2012.



Banking union: a solution to the euro crisis?

By Maylis Avaro and Henri Sterdyniak

The European summit on 28th and 29th June marked a new attempt by Europe’s institutions and Member states to overcome the crisis in the euro zone. A so-called Growth Pact was adopted, but it consists mainly of commitments by the Member states to undertake structural reform, and the limited funds made available (120 billion over several years) were for the most part already planned. The strategy of imposing restrictive fiscal policies was not called into question, and France pledged to ratify the Fiscal Compact. The interventions of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) will now be less rigid, as, without additional conditions, they can help countries that the financial markets refuse to finance so long as they meet their objectives in terms of fiscal policy and structural reform. But euro-bonds and the mutual guarantee of public debt were postponed. The summit also launched a new project: a banking union. Is this an essential supplement to monetary union, or is it a new headlong rush into the unknown?

The current crisis is largely a banking crisis. The European banks had fed financial bubbles and housing bubbles (especially in Spain and Ireland), and they had invested in mutual funds and hedge funds in the United States. After major losses during the crisis of 2007-2010, the Member states came to their rescue, which was particularly costly for Germany, the UK, Spain and above all Ireland. The sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone has compounded their woes: the sovereign debt that they hold has become a risky asset. The problem of regulating the banks has been raised at the international level (new Basel III standards), in the United States (Volkers rule and Dodd-Frank law) and in Britain (Vickers report).

In June 2012, doubts about the soundness of Europe’s banks surfaced yet again. The measures taken since 2008 to stabilize the financial system have proved insufficient. When Bankia, Spain’s fourth-largest bank, announced that it was requesting State assistance of 19 billion euros, worries about the balance sheets of Spanish banks rose sharply. The rate of bad loans of the country’s banks, whose balance sheets were hit hard by the real estate crash, rose from 3.3% at end 2008 to 8.7% in June 2012 [1]. Furthermore, many Greeks, fearing an exit from the euro zone, began to reduce their deposits in the banks there [2].


In response to these dangers, the proposal for a European banking union was given a new boost by Mario Monti. Italy’s PM suggested developing the proposals in preparation for the European Commission Single Market DG, an idea that currently has the support of the Commission, the European Central Bank, and several Member states (Italy, France, Spain, etc.) On the other hand, Germany believes that a banking union is impossible without a fiscal union. While Angela Merkel acknowledged [3] that it was important to have a European supervisory authority, with a supranational banking authority with a better general overview, she clearly rejected the idea of Germany taking a risk of further transfers and guarantees without greater fiscal and policy integration [4]. The euro zone summit meeting on 29 June asked the Commission to make proposals shortly on a single monitoring mechanism for the euro zone’s banks.

This kind of banking union would rest on three cornerstones:

– a European authority in charge of centralized oversight of the banks,

– a European deposit guarantee fund,

– a common mechanism for resolving bank crises.

Each of these cornerstones suffers specific problems: some are related to the complex way the EU functions (Should a banking union be limited to the euro zone, or should it include all EU countries? Would it be a step towards greater federalism? How can it be reconciled with national prerogatives?), while others concern the structural choices that would be required to deal with the operations of the European banking system.

As to the institution that will exercise the new banking supervisory powers, the choice being debated is between the European Banking Authority (EBA) and the ECB. The EBA was established in November 2010 to improve oversight of the EU banking system, and it has already conducted two series of “stress tests” on the banks. As a result of the tests, in October 2011 Bankia reported a 1.3 billion euro shortage of funds. Five months later, the deficit was 23 billion; the EBA’s credibility suffered. In addition, the London-based EBA has authority over the British system, while the United Kingdom does not want to take part in the banking union. The ECB has, for its part, received support from Germany. Article 127.6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union [5], which was cited at the euro zone summit of June 29th as a basis for the creation of a European Banking Authority, would make it possible to give the ECB supervisory authority. On 12 June, the Vice-President of the ECB, Mr. Constancio, said that, “the ECB and the Eurosystem are prepared” to receive these powers; “there is no need to create a new institution”.

European oversight implies a common vision of banking regulation. There must be agreement on crucial issues, such as: “Does commercial banking need to be separated from investment banking?” “Should banks be prohibited from operating on the financial markets for their own account?” “Should public or mutual or regional banks be encouraged rather than large internationalized banks?” “Should banks be encouraged to extend credit primarily to businesses and government in their own country, or on the contrary to diversify?” “Should the macro-prudential rules be national or European?” In our opinion, entrusting these matters to the ECB runs the risk of taking a further step in the depoliticization of Europe.

Applying the guidelines of this new authority will be problematic. A banking group in difficulty could be ordered to divest its holdings in large national groups. But would a country’s government expose a national champion to foreign control? Governments would lose the ability to influence the distribution of credit by banks, which some people might find desirable (no political interference in lending), but in our opinion is dangerous (governments would lose a tool of industrial policy that could be used to finance Small and Medium Enterprises [SMEs] and Economic and technological intelligence [ETI] projects or to support the ecological transition).

For example, in a case involving Dexia, the opposition between the European Commission on the one hand and France, Belgium and Luxembourg on the other is blocking a restructuring plan. The plan includes the takeover of Dexia Credit Local’s financing of local authorities by a banking collectivity that would be created based on cooperation between La Banque postale and the Caisse des depots. In the name of fair competition, Brussels is challenging the financing of local communities by such a bank, as Dexia has received public funding for its restructuring plan. This is threatening the continuity of the financing of the French local authorities, and could put a halt to their plans; in particular, it could prevent France from providing specific secure mechanisms for financing local authorities through local savings.

The purpose of a deposit guarantee fund is to reduce the risk of a massive withdrawal of deposits during a banking panic. This fund could be financed through contributions by the European banks guaranteed by the fund. According to Schoenmaker and Gros [6], a banking union must be created under a “veil of ignorance”, that is to say, without knowing which country poses the greatest risk: this is not the case in Europe today. The authors propose a guarantee fund that at the outset would accept only the strongest large transnational banks, but this would immediately heighten the risk of the zone breaking apart if depositors rushed to the guaranteed banks. The fund would thus need to guarantee all Europe’s banks. According to Schoenmaker and Gros, assuming a 100,000 euro ceiling on the guarantee, the amount of deposits covered would be 9,700 billion euros. The authors argue that the fund should have a permanent reserve representing 1.5% of the deposits covered (i.e. about 140 billion euros). But this would make it possible to rescue only one or two major European banks. During a banking crisis, amidst the risk of contagion, such a fund would have little credibility. The guarantee of deposits would continue to depend on the States and on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which would have to provide support funds, ultimately by requiring additional contributions from the banks.

The authority in charge of this fund has not yet been designated. While the ECB appears well positioned to undertake supervision of the banking system, entrusting it with management of the deposit guarantee fund is much more problematic. According to Repullo [7], deposit insurance should be separated from the function of lender of last resort. Indeed, otherwise the ECB could use its ability to create money to recapitalize the banks, which would increase the money supply. The objectives of monetary policy and of support for the banks would thus come into conflict. What is needed is a body that handles deposit insurance and crisis resolution and is separate from the ECB, and which must have a say on the behavior of the banks, and which would be additional to the EBA, the ECB, and the national regulators. The ECB on the other hand would continue to play its role as lender of last resort. But it is difficult to see how such a complicated system would be viable.

As the risk of a country leaving the euro zone cannot yet be dismissed, the question arises as to what guarantee would be offered by a banking union in the case of a conversion into national currency of euro-denominated deposits. A guarantee of deposits in the national currency would, in the case of an exit from the euro, heavily penalize customers of banks that suffer a devaluation of the national currency against the euro, whose purchasing power would decline sharply. This kind of guarantee does not solve the problem of capital flight being experienced today by countries threatened by a risk of default. What is needed is a guarantee of deposits in euros, but in today’s situation, given the level of risk facing some countries, this is difficult to set up.

German and Finnish politicians and economists such as H. W. Sinn are, for instance, denouncing an excessive level of risk for Germany and the Nordic countries. According to several German economists, no supranational authority has the right to impose new burdens (or risk levels) on the German banks without the consent of Parliament, and the risk levels need to be explicitly limited. The German Constitutional Court might oppose the deposit guarantee fund as exposing Germany to an unlimited level of risk. Moreover, according to George Osborne, the Chancellor of the British Exchequer, a bank deposit guarantee at the European level would require an amendment to existing treaties and the consent of Great Britain.

On 6 June, the European Commission began to develop a common framework for resolving banking crises by adopting the proposal of Michel Barnier, which has three components. The first is to improve prevention by requiring banks to set up testaments, that is, to provide for recovery strategies and even disposal plans in case of a serious crisis. The second gives the European banking authorities the power to intervene to implement the recovery plans and to change the leadership of a bank if it fails to meet capital requirements. The third provides that, if a bank fails, the national governments must take control of the establishment and use resolution tools such as divestiture, the creation of a defeasance bank, or “bad” bank, or an internal bailout (by forcing shareholders and creditors to provide new money). If necessary, the banks could receive funds from the ESM. Bank-related risks would therefore be better distributed: the shareholders and creditors not covered by the guarantee would be first to be called upon, so that the taxpayers would not pay to reimburse the creditors of insolvent banks. In return, bank loans and shares would become much riskier; bank reluctance about inter-bank credit and the drying up of the interbank market due to the crisis would persist; and the banks would find it difficult to issue securities and would have to raise the level of compensation. However, Basel III standards require banks to link their lending to the level of their capital. This would pose a risk of constraining the distribution of credit, thereby helping to keep the zone in recession. Based on the decisions of the summit on 29 June, Spain could be the first country whose banks would be recapitalized directly by the ESM. However, this would not take place until early 2013; the terms of the procedure and the impact of ESM aid on the governance of the recapitalized banks still need to be determined. As can be seen in the Dexia example, what terms are set for the reorganization of a bank can have serious consequences for the country concerned: are governments (and citizens) willing to lose all power in this domain?

A banking union can help break the correlation between a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis. When the rating agencies downgrade a country’s debt, the securities suffer a loss in value and move into the category of “risky assets”, becoming less liquid. This increases the overall risk faced by the banks in the country concerned. If a bank is facing too much overall risk and it is no longer able to meet the capital requirements of Basel III, the State must recapitalize it, but to do this it must take on debt, thereby increasing the risk of a default. This link between the banks’ fragile balance sheets and public debt generates a dangerous spiral. For instance, since the announcement of the bankruptcy of Bankia, Spain’s 10-year refinancing rates reached the critical threshold of 7%, whereas last year the rates were about 5.5%. In a banking union, the banks would be encouraged to diversify on a European scale. However, the crisis of 2007-09 demonstrated the risks of international diversification: many European banks lost a great deal of money in the US; foreign banks are unfamiliar with the local business scene, including SMEs, ETIs and local government. Diversification based on financial criteria does not fit well with a wise distribution of credit. Moreover, since the crisis, European banks are tending to retreat to their home countries.

The proposal for a banking union assumes that the solvency of the banks depends primarily on their own capital, and thus on the market’s evaluation, and that the links between a country’s needs for financing (government, business and consumers) and the national banks are severed. There is an argument for the opposite strategy: a restructuring of the banking sector, where the commercial banks focus on their core business (local lending, based on detailed expertise, to businesses, consumers and national government), where their solvency would be guaranteed by a prohibition against certain risky or speculative transactions.

Would banking union promote further financialization, or would it mark a healthy return to the Rhineland model? Would it require the separation of commercial banks and investment banks? Would it mean prohibiting banks whose deposits are guaranteed to do business on the financial markets for their own account?





[1] According to the Bank of Spain.

[2] The total bank accounts of consumers and business fell by 65 billion in Greece since 2010. Source: Greek Central Bank.

[3] “La supervision bancaire européenne s’annonce politiquement sensible”, Les Echos Finance, Thursday 14 June 2012, p. 28.

[4] “Les lignes de fracture entre Européens avant le sommet de Bruxelles”, AFP Infos Economiques 27 June 2012.

[5] Art 127.6: ”The Council, acting by means of regulations in accordance with a special legislative procedure, may unanimously, and after consulting the European Parliament and the European Central Bank, confer specific tasks upon the European Central Bank concerning policies relating to the prudential supervision of credit institutions and other financial institutions with the exception of insurance undertakings.”

[6] D. Schoenmaker and Daniel Gros (2012), “A European Deposit Insurance and Resolution Fund”, CEPS working document, No. 364, May.

[7] Repullo, R. (2000), “Who Should Act as Lender of Last Resort? An Incomplete Contracts Model”, Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 32, 580-605.



Financing higher education: Should students have to pay?

By Guillaume Allègre and Xavier Timbeau

Is it necessary to ensure that a greater portion of the cost of higher education is borne by students in the form of higher tuition fees, which might or might not be coupled with loans? It is often argued that financing higher education through taxes is anti-redistributive. We show in a working document that from a life cycle perspective proportional taxation is not anti-redistributive.

While raising higher education fees is not on the political agenda in France, it is a subject of intense fighting, not only in Quebec, but also in Spain and Great Britain, where student protests erupted at the end of 2010. Reports in France regularly propose raising tuition fees: recently (2011), in a note by the Institut de l’Entreprise [in French] on the role of business in financing higher education, Pierre-André Chiappori proposes “lifting the taboo on tuition fees”. In a contribution to Terra Nova [in French] published in 2011, Yves Lichtenberger and Alexandre Aïdara propose raising annual university tuition fees by about 1000 euros. Paradoxically, the authors also propose creating a study allowance that could be used anytime in a person’s life. The authors are attempting to deal with two contradictory economic dynamics. On the one hand, a study allowance would help raise the general level of education, a factor in innovation and growth, while simultaneously fighting against social self-selection in higher education:
In countries that have adopted it [the study allowance], disadvantaged social strata may have an opportunity to undertake lengthier studies even though their social origins have predestined them to short-term courses that provide quick entry into salaried employment. This is an important means of raising the general level of education and the qualifications of young people, which is a central concern of this report. (Lichtenberger and Aïdara, p.82)
But on the other hand, education benefits better-off strata, and being free makes it anti-redistributive:
The fact that public higher education is virtually free leads, first, to a transfer of resources (the public cost of education) to young people who are in education the longest. This overwhelmingly means young people from better-off strata. This transfer is reflected ultimately in private returns to the beneficiaries: higher wages and then pensions, which benefit the most highly educated throughout their lives…. As things stand, higher education’s free character has no redistributive value and even aggravates inequalities. (Lichtenberger and Aïdara, p.84)
Indeed, even if the anti-redistributive character of free higher education is not the only argument made by advocates of higher tuition, it is one of their main arguments. This argument relies on a static and familialist vision of redistribution. We adopt a life cycle perspective instead.
As highlighted in the second excerpt above, on average the beneficiaries of education spending enjoy a significant private benefit: they will have higher wages and pensions throughout their lives. Even assuming that tax (on income) is proportional to income (which is not the case: in reality, it is progressive), they will pay much more tax, in absolute terms, than individuals who have completed shorter studies. Above all, tax allows for the financing of education by individuals who actually receive significant private benefits, and in proportion to this benefit. People who suffer discrimination in the labour market or who were oriented towards less profitable sectors and benefit from low returns to education reimburse society a lesser amount through their taxes than those who benefit more. Financing through income tax leads people with higher incomes to contribute even when they have not had a lengthy education. The injustice would therefore lie in the transfer between persons with high incomes who are not highly educated and those who are highly educated. But if education is characterized to a great extent by significant social returns, thanks to its impact on growth (see Aghion and Cohen), then people with high incomes are actually beneficiaries of spending on education, whether or not they are highly educated themselves (for instance, self-taught entrepreneurs benefit from the availability of skilled labour).
Adopting a life cycle perspective, we show in a working document that financing spending on non-compulsory education (beyond 16 years) by a proportional tax represents a net transfer from those with higher incomes during their careers to those with lower incomes during their careers. From a life cycle perspective, free non-compulsory education financed by taxes does not benefit individuals with more affluent parents (the transfer from individuals from better-off households to those from poorer households is not significantly different from zero). If individuals from the poorest households react to the increase in tuition fees by reducing their investment in education, even when this is financed by loans, then there can be little doubt that they will be the first victims of this type of reform. Advocates of tuition increases generally argue for small increases in tuition fees and exemptions based on means-testing the parents. But recent developments in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada show that, once the fees have been introduced, it is difficult to prevent governments that are seeking new funds from increasing the fees and reducing the exemption thresholds.
In higher education, the leading injustice is the lack of access to people from modest backgrounds. The surest way to ensure equity in education is still to fund it through income tax and to reform education so that it is targeted at academic success for all rather than at selection.

The euro zone in crisis: challenges for monetary and fiscal policies

By Catherine Mathieu and Henri Sterdyniak

The 9th EUROFRAME conference [1] was held on 8 June 2012 in Kiel on issues concerning the economic policy of the European Union. The topic was: “The euro zone in crisis: challenges for monetary and fiscal policies”. The conference was, of course, dominated by the issue of the sovereign debt crisis in the euro zone. How did it come to this? Should the blame be put on mistakes in national economic policies? Must the way the euro zone is organized be changed?

A number of fault lines appeared (cf. also the related Note in French):

  • Some believe that it is irresponsible domestic policies that are the cause of the imbalances: the southern countries were allowed to develop real estate and wage bubbles, while the northern countries carried out virtuous policies of wage moderation and structural reform. The southern countries must adopt the strategy of the northern countries and accept a prolonged dose of austerity. For others, the single currency has allowed the development of mirror opposite imbalances: too much austerity in the North, and too many wage increases in the South; what is needed is a convergence where stimulus in the North facilitates the absorption of the external imbalances in the South.
  • For some, every country must implement policies that combine fiscal consolidation and structural reform. For others, what is needed is an EU-wide growth strategy (in particular by financing an ecological transition) and a guarantee of public debt so as to promote a convergence of national interest rates at lower levels.
  • Some believe that any new solidarity measures involve developing a Union budget, which means the inclusion of binding rules in the Fiscal Compact; for others, what is needed is the open coordination of economic policies, without pre-established standards.

We provide a report that includes brief comments [2] in a lengthy Note.

[1] EUROFRAME is a network of European economic institutes that includes: DIW and IFW (Germany), WIFO (Austria), ETLA (Finland), OFCE (France), ESRI (Ireland), PROMETEIA (Italy), CPB (Netherlands), CASE (Poland), NIESR (United Kingdom).

[2] Most of the articles are available at: Selected articles will be published in an issue of the Revue de l’OFCE, in the “Débats et Politiques” collection, at the end of 2012. The report reflects the views of the authors alone.


European Council: wait and sink?

By Jérôme 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


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.