France: the rise in cyclical unemployment continues

By Bruno Ducoudré

The Great Recession, which began in 2008, has resulted in a continuous and inexorable rise in unemployment in France, by 3.1 percentage points between the low point reached in the first quarter of 2008 (7.1% in mainland France) and the peak in the fourth quarter of 2012. The unemployment rate is now close to the record levels reached in the late 1990s. This rise can be broken down into a change in the rate of cyclical unemployment due to the lack of economic growth, and a change in the rate of structural unemployment. The latter gives information on the extent of the output gap, which is crucial for measuring the structural deficit. Consequently, any choice about the fiscal policy to be adopted to re-balance the public finances needs an analysis of the nature of the additional unemployment generated by the crisis. In other words, has the crisis mainly resulted in cyclical unemployment or structural unemployment?

A study of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU)[1] offers one way of analysing whether the unemployment is structural or cyclical. Based on an estimate of the wage-price spiral, we propose in the OFCE’s  2013-2014 forecasts for the French economy taking a look at the level of the equilibrium rate of unemployment (ERU) using a recursive estimate of the NAIRU since 1995 in order to identify the share of cyclical unemployment.

First, our estimate of the ERU takes good account of the lack of real inflationary pressures since 1995. Indeed, the actual unemployment rate is consistently higher than the ERU over this period (Figure 1). However, between 1995 and 2012 underlying inflation varies between 0 and 2%. It reaches 2% in 2002 and 2008, times when the actual unemployment rate is closer to the ERU, although this does not reflect the real inflationary pressures. In 2012, the increase in the unemployment rate led to a wider gap with the equilibrium rate of unemployment and was accompanied by a slowdown in underlying inflation, which fell below 1% by the end of the year.

Second, the NAIRU is estimated at 7.2% on average over the years 2000-2012, with an average inflation rate of 1.9% over the period. Inflation rose to an average 7.7% over the period 2008-2012 (Table 1) and to 7.8% in 2012 (Figure 1).

Third, these estimates also indicate that the NAIRU has increased by 0.9 percentage points since the onset of the crisis. This explains at most 30% of the rise in the unemployment rate since 2008, with the remainder coming from an increase in cyclical unemployment. The cyclical component of unemployment would therefore represent 2.1 percentage points of unemployment in 2012. This change in the gap between the actual unemployment rate and the equilibrium rate of unemployment is also consistent with underlying inflation, which has been declining since 2009. Given our forecast of unemployment, this gap will increase by 1.5 percentage points, to a level of 3.6% in 2014 on an annual average.

Estimates of the equilibrium rate of unemployment thus indicate that the gap with the actual unemployment rate has widened during the crisis. The share of cyclical unemployment has increased, with the rise in cyclical unemployment accounting for about 70% of the rise in the unemployment rate since 2008. This confirms our diagnosis of a high output gap for the French economy in 2012, a gap that will continue to widen in 2014 under the combined impact of fiscal austerity and a high fiscal multiplier.

This text draws on the analysis of the economic situation and the forecast for 2013-2014, which is available [in French] on the OFCE site.

[1] The NAIRU is the rate of unemployment at which the inflation rate remains stable. Above it, inflation slows, which eventually makes possible an increase in employment and a reduction in unemployment. Below it, the dynamic is reversed, leading to higher inflation, a fall in employment and a return of unemployment to its equilibrium level.


Holding to the required course

By Eric Heyer

This text summarizes the OFCE’s 2013-2014 forecasts for the French economy.

In 2013, the French economy should see negative annual average growth, with a fall in GDP of 0.2%, before a modest recovery in 2014, with growth of 0.6 % (Table 1). This particularly mediocre performance is far from the path that an economy pulling out of a crisis should be taking.

Four years after the start of the crisis, the French economy has a substantial potential for recovery: this should have led to average spontaneous growth of about 2.6% per year in 2013 and 2014, making up some of the output gap accumulated since the onset of the crisis. But this spontaneous recovery is being hampered mainly by the introduction of fiscal savings plans in France and across Europe. To meet its commitment to cut the public deficit to 3% by 2014, the French government will have to hold to the course of fiscal consolidation it adopted in 2010, which was imposed by the European Commission in all the euro zone countries. This budget strategy should slash 2.6 percentage points off GDP growth in France in 2013 and 2.0 percentage points off GDP in 2014 (Table 2).

By setting a pace far from its potential, the expected growth will aggravate the output gap built up since 2008, with the labour market thus continuing to worsen. The unemployment rate will rise steadily to 11.6% in late 2014.

Only a shift in European fiscal strategy could halt the rise in unemployment. This would mean limiting the negative fiscal stimulus to 0.5 percent of GDP instead of the total of 1.0 points planned in the euro zone in 2014. This reduced fiscal effort could be repeated until the public deficit or debt reaches a defined goal. Compared to current plans, because the effort would be measured the burden of adjustment would be spread more fairly over the taxpayers in each country, avoiding the pitfall of drastic cuts in the public budgets. This new strategy would lead to a slower reduction in the public deficit (-3.4% in 2014 against -3.0% in our central scenario), but also and especially to higher economic growth (1.6% against 0.6%). This “less austerity” scenario would allow the French economy to create 119,000 jobs in 2014, i.e. 232,000 more than in our central forecast, and unemployment would fall instead of continuing to increase.


The onset of deflation

By Xavier Timbeau

This text summarizes the April 2013 forecasts of the OFCE.

The global economic and financial crisis that began in late 2008 is now entering its fifth year. For the European Union, 2012 has been another year of recession, showing just how much the prospect of an end to the crisis, heralded so many times, has been contradicted by economic developments. Our forecasts for 2013 and 2014 can be summarized rather ominously: the developed countries will remain mired in a vicious circle of rising unemployment, protracted recession and growing doubts about the sustainability of public finances.

From 2010 to 2012, the fiscal measures already taken or announced have been unprecedented for the euro zone countries (-4.6% of GDP), the United Kingdom (-6% of GDP) and the United States (-4.7% of GDP). The fiscal adjustment in the US that has been long delayed but finally precipitated by the lack of political consensus between Democrats and Republicans will take place again in 2013 and 2014. In 2014, austerity in the euro zone will ease, although it will continue at an intense level in the countries still in deficit, which are also those with the highest fiscal multipliers.

In a context of high multipliers, the fiscal effort has a cost in terms of activity. This phrase, taken from Marco Buti, chief economist of the European Commission, sounds like both a confession and a euphemism – a confession, because the acknowledgement of the high value of the fiscal multipliers came late and was neglected too long; Olivier Blanchard and David Leigh recall that this problem led to systematic forecast errors and that these errors were much larger in countries in the worst situations undertaking the largest deficit reductions.

But the undervaluation of the multipliers also meant that the hopes accompanying deficit reduction were disappointed. The “unexpectedly” heavy impact of the austerity plans on activity has meant lower tax revenues, and thus a smaller reduction in the deficit. In attempting to meet their nominal deficit targets regardless of the cost, the States have only exacerbated the fiscal effort.

A confession like this might suggest that the error was inevitable and that the lesson has been drawn. This is not the case. First, since 2009, many voices were raised warning that the multipliers might be higher than in “normal times”, that the possibility of the kind of expansive consolidation described and documented by Alberto Alesina was an illusion based on a misinterpretation of the data, and that there was a real risk of neglecting the impact of the fiscal consolidation on economic activity.

In October 2010, the IMF, under the impetus even then of Olivier Blanchard, described the risks of pursuing an overly brutal consolidation. The general awareness finally emerging in early 2013 reflected an acknowledgement of such a substantial accumulation of empirical evidence that the opposite view had become untenable. But the damage was done.

Nor was the lesson learned. According to the European Commission, the multipliers were high. [1] The use of the past tense reveals the new position of the European Commission: while the multiplier were high, they are now back to their pre-crisis value. This means that, according to the European Commission, the euro zone is again in a “normal” economic situation. The argument here is theoretical, not empirical. Normally, economic agents are “Ricardian” in the sense that Robert Barro has given this term. Agents can smooth their consumption and investment decisions and are not constrained by their income over the short-term. The multipliers would therefore be low or even zero. Fiscal consolidation (which is the name given to the unprecedented budgetary efforts made since 2010 in the euro zone) could therefore continue, this time without the hassles previously observed. This argument is undoubtedly relevant in theory, but its use in practice today is puzzling. It amounts to forgetting far too easily that we are in a situation of high unemployment, that long-term unemployment is increasing, that company balance sheets are still devastated by the loss of activity that started in 2008, and have never really recovered except in Germany, that the banks themselves are struggling to comply with accounting standards and that the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has urged that some of them be closed. It means forgetting that the famous credit that is supposed to smooth consumption and investment has collapsed, i.e. amidst a rampant and powerful credit crunch. It means forgetting that in this era when the injunction to prefer the private sector over the public sector is stronger than ever, panic in the financial markets is leading savers and investment advisers to opt for investments in State sovereign bonds with yields of less than 2% at 10 years. And this is taking place despite downgrades by the credit rating agencies because these States are perceived (and “priced”, to use the jargon of the trading floors) as having the lowest risk. Such are the paradoxes of a time when one voluntarily submits to taxation by accepting negative real interest rates on investments and paying dearly for default insurance.

So if the confession seems belated and not to have had much impact on the dogma for escaping the crisis, it also involves a euphemism. For what are these costs that Marco Buti refers to? The price to be paid for an unavoidable financial situation? A hard time to get through before we return to a healthy future? It is by turning away from a detailed analysis of the risks run by continuing the current economic strategy, which has finally been acknowledged as having been incorrectly calibrated, that we miss what is most important. By pursuing the short-term goal of consolidation, while the fiscal multipliers are high, the conditions that make the fiscal multipliers high in the first place are maintained or even reinforced. The period of unemployment and underutilization of capacity are thus prolonged. This prevents the reduction of private debt, the starting point of the crisis, thus perpetuating it.

The fiscal effort has been disappointing in the short term, as the consequence of a high multiplier is that the deficit is reduced less than expected, or even not at all. Public debt in turn increases, as the effect of the denominator outweighs the slower growth of the numerator (see the iAGS report for a discussion and a simple formalization). There are numerous examples, the most recent of which was France, and the most spectacular Spain. But the disappointment is not just in the short term. The persistence of zero growth and a recession changes expectations about future growth: what was analyzed a few quarters ago as a cyclical deficit is now considered structural. The disappointment also modifies the future potential. The hysteresis effects in the labour market, the reduction in R&D, the delays with infrastructure and even, as can be seen now in Southern Europe, the cutbacks in education, in the fight against poverty and in the integration of immigrants all obscure the long-term outlook.

In 2013 and 2014, the developed countries will all continue their fiscal consolidation efforts. For some, this will mean the repetition and thus the accumulation of an unprecedented effort over five consecutive years. For Spain, this amounts to a cumulative fiscal effort of more than 8 percentage points of GDP! With few exceptions, unemployment will continue to rise in the developed countries, reaching a situation where involuntary unemployment exceeds the capacity of the national unemployment insurance systems to replace the lost employment income, especially since these systems are facing budget cuts themselves. In this context, wage deflation will kick off in the countries hit hardest. Since the euro zone has ​​fixed exchange rates, this wage deflation will inevitably be transmitted to other countries. This will constitute a new lever perpetuating the crisis. As wages decrease, it becomes impossible for economic agents to access the financial system to smooth their economic decisions. The debts that have been targeted for reduction since the onset of the crisis will appreciate in real terms. Debt deflation will become the new vector of entrapment in the crisis.

There is, in this situation, a particularly specious argument to justify this conduct: that there was no alternative, i.e. that history was written before 2008 and that the errors in economic policy committed before the crisis made ​​it inevitable, and above all that any other choice, such as postponing the consolidation of the public finances to a time when the fiscal multipliers were lower, was simply not possible. Market pressures and the need to restore lost credibility before 2008 made prompt action essential. If the actions carried out had not been carried out just as they were, then the worst would have happened. The euro would have collapsed, and defaults on public and private debt would have plunged the euro zone into a depression like that of the 1930s, or even worse. The great efforts undertaken made it possible to avert a disaster, and the result of these measures is, at the end of the day, quite encouraging. Such is the story.

But this argument ignores the risks being run today. Deflation, the prolongation of mass unemployment, the collapse of the welfare states, the discrediting of their policies, the undermining of consent to taxation, all carry the seeds of threats whose consequences can only be glimpsed today. Above all, this dismisses the alternative for the euro zone of exercising its sovereignty and demonstrating its solidarity. This argument is based on the idea that for the States fiscal discipline is to be exercised through the markets. It obscures the fact that the public debt and currency are inseparable. An alternative does exist; it requires that the public debt in the euro zone be pooled; it requires a leap towards a transfer of sovereignty; and it requires completing the European project.


[1] “With fiscal multipliers higher than in normal times, the consolidation efforts have been costly in terms of output and employment”, Marco Buti and Karl Pichelmann, ECFIN Economic Brief Issue 19, Feb. 2013, European prosperity reloaded: an optimistic glance at EMU@20.


Family benefits: family business?

By Hélène Périvier

Bertrand Fragonard has submitted his report to the Prime Minister; it aims, first, to enhance the redistributive nature of family policy and, second, to rebalance the accounts of the family branch, which have recently been running a deficit, by 2016. A realignment of family benefits towards low-income families is proposed as the first objective. As for the second, the two options proposed are adjusting benefits based on means, or taxing them. How can 2 billion euros be found in today’s lean times?

With the cow already thin, is it really the time to put it on a diet?

The cutbacks in spending on family policy are part of a broader economic austerity policy aimed at rebalancing the public accounts. The government deficit is of course a serious issue, which cannot simply be swept under the rug. It is bound up with the durability and sustainability of our welfare state, and as concerns the topic being discussed here more specifically, with the future of family policy. But the magnitude and timing of the fight against deficits are central to its effectiveness. The OFCE’s forecasting work shows that the massive reductions in public spending being made by France will undercut growth. The lack of growth will in turn slow deficit reduction, which will thus not live up to expectations. Ultimately, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, in particular if the economy isn’t producing the ingredients.

If we continue down this path of trimming family policy, then how should we proceed? Who should bear the cost? Should we cut spending or increase revenues?

Staying the course?

A number of principles guide public action. They constitute a compass that helps to stay the course that we have set and to develop the tools needed to do this. With regard to family policy, the first principle concerns horizontal equity: this requires that a household should not see its standard of living fall with the arrival of a child. In other words, based on this principle, all households finance support that benefits only households with dependent children. This constitutes redistribution from households without children to those with children, whether the household is rich or poor. This sharing of the cost of children is justified by the idea that a healthy birth rate benefits everyone. Family allowances are emblematic of this principle.

The second principle concerns vertical equity: every household should participate in the financing of family policy in a progressive manner based on its income, and low-income households with dependent children should receive special assistance, such as the family income supplement [le complément familial], a means-tested assistance for families with three or more children.

Nothing of course prevents us from changing tack by changing the relationship between these two principles. Indeed, family policy does need to be reformed: it should take into account the changes undergone by French society in recent decades (which policy now does only partially): increased numbers of women in the workforce, the rise in divorce and unmarried partnerships (today most children are born to couples who are neither married nor civil partners), new family configurations, concern for the equality of children with respect to collective care and socialization, territorial inequalities, etc. (Périvier and de Singly, 2013). These considerations on family policy need to be integrated into an overall vision of the tax-benefit system for families –otherwise public policy risks becoming incoherent. The mission statement behind the Fragonard report highlights above all rebalancing the family branch accounts by 2016, “with a significant shift from 2014”.

Don’t lose your bearings!

While staying the course on family policy, some leeway is possible. To draw on the contributions of all households, the taxation of the couple could be reviewed. Under the current system, married couples or civil partners have two tax shares; this leads to tax reductions that increase in line with the difference in the income of the two partners (the extreme case being that of Mr. Breadwinner and Mrs. Housewife, the arrangement that this type of taxation was designed to encourage). This is what is called the conjugal quotient [1]. This “benefit” is not capped [2], unlike the benefit related to the presence of a child (the famous family quotient, whose ceiling was recently reduced to 2000 euros). Capping the conjugal quotient would not call into question the principle of horizontal equity, as many childless couples benefit from it, couples who, for the most part, had dependent children in the past and have benefited from a generous family policy. Doing this would spread the effort to rebalance the family branch accounts over a wide range of households, including those who do not have or no longer have dependent children [3]. The complete elimination of the conjugal quotient (i.e. the individualisation of taxes) would provide additional tax revenue of 5.5 billion euros (HCF, 2011). This tax “benefit” could initially simply be capped: the yield would be greater or smaller, depending on the ceiling adopted [4]. The distribution of the gain for couples related to the marital quotient is concentrated among the highest income deciles (Architecture des aides aux familles, HCF, 2011). Another possible tax revenue concerns the extra half-share granted for having raised a child alone for at least 5 years. Now capped at 897 euros, this benefit could be eliminated, as it does not meet any of the principles set out above and it is doomed to disappear.

These steps would increase tax revenue and help fund family policy. These options would unquestionably increase the tax burden on households. If we add to the effort requested the constraint to not increase taxation, then the 2 billion euros would have to be found through cuts in spending on family benefits. The room for manoeuvring becomes almost razor thin. Out of concern for vertical fairness, these cuts must be borne by the best-off families with children. But this vertical redistribution is conceived within the limited framework of families with children. Yet vertical equity generally consists of a redistribution from better-off households to poorer households. What is therefore being applied here would be a principle of vertical equity that could be described as “restricted vertical equity”.

There is no free lunch…

The family allowance is clearly in the firing line in this narrow framework for family policy that excludes from its scope the taxation of couples in particular. It represents 15% of the family benefits paid, or 12 billion euros. There are two main options: the amount could be adjusted in line with the level of household resources, or the benefits could be taxed. But which? Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

Subjecting the family allowance to conditions would help to target wealthy families while not affecting the others. This targeting would enhance the redistributive character of the system, which would definitely be an advantage. But this requires setting income thresholds above which the amount of benefits received decreases. So families in similar situations would receive different levels of benefits depending on whether their incomes were just below or just above the threshold. This would undermine the universal commitment to the welfare state. Furthermore, the thresholds could lead to a contraction in the labour supply of women in couples: the “classic” trade-off would be, “if I work more, we will lose benefits” – it is still the activity of women, and always the activity of women, that suffers. To limit these negative effects, the thresholds could be smoothed and variable income ceilings introduced based on the activity of the two partners by raising those applying to couples where both work. What would gradually emerge is a huge white elephant, a Rube Goldberg machine that generates higher management costs with extra work for the CAF service. In addition, the system would be less transparent, because it is more complex, leading to overpayments, fraud, and even more annoying, a lack of take-up (those eligible for a benefit don’t apply). Finally, selective benefits are the breeding ground for debate around a culture of dependency, with the suspicion that “the reason these people don’t work is in order to get benefits”. Note that this risk disappears if the thresholds are set at a high level.

Taxing the family allowance would get around these problems: it is simple, with no extra management costs, as the amount of benefits received would just be added to taxable income. So the progressiveness of the income tax system would apply. More affluent families with children would pay more than those on lower incomes. But targeting would be less accurate than before: many families with children would be affected, and households that were previously not taxable may become so (even if this involved small amounts). Finally, the tax burden would increase, which is politically costly.

By construction, in both cases families that have only one child would not be affected because, under a family policy designed to promote high birth-rates, they do not receive family benefits. And in both cases families without dependent children are not required to contribute.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water ….

Adjusting the family allowance for income is the track that seems to be preferred by the Fragonard report. The opinion of the High Council for the family (HCF) indicates that this approach has been rejected by the majority of that body’s members. Overall, the measures proposed in the report are to reduce the spending on families with dependent children within the limited scope of family policy, namely benefits. The danger looming is that the guidelines proposed lead to paralysis by freezing the different oppositions and exacerbating the conservative visions for family policy. Some will justly view this as a systematic attack on family policy, since the overall budget is cut. Nevertheless, an overhaul of family assistance is needed, but it cannot involve a reduction in spending in this area as the need is so great, especially to ensure progress with regard both to gender equality and equality between children. Any reform must be based on the principles of justice and on an approach to the welfare state that needs to be reviewed and renegotiated. Even though the budget constraints are serious, we cannot reduce the amount allocated to family policy, but nor should we retreat from the in-depth reform that is needed.


[1] Note that mechanisms such as a tax break or incentive to promote employment tend to favour people who are cohabiting over married couples. The interactions between the multiple tax provisions complicate comparisons of the tax treatment of people with different marital statuses.

[2] It is, implicitly, but for extremely high levels of income, reaching the upper end of the income tax brackets with or without the marital quotient (this implicit cap limits the advantage to 12,500 euros).

[3] On condition that these additional tax revenues are paid to the family branch.

[4] For a ceiling of 2,590 euros, the extra tax revenue from capping the conjugal quotient would be about 1.4 billion euros (HCF, 2013).


In memoriam. Raymond Boudon

By Michel Forsé

Raymond Boudon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris Sorbonne, died at the age of 79 on Wednesday, 10 April 2013. It is difficult to summarize so much fruitful work. He was of course the leader of the school of thought known as methodological individualism, which holds that the collective is always the result of rational individual actions. He devoted much of his effort to setting out the foundations for this and attached great importance to the thought of Max Weber. At the beginning of his career, his personal contacts with the American Paul Lazarsfeld led him to develop a formalized and rigorous approach to social facts, in contrast to the structuralism which was so much in vogue at the time and which he disliked. For Boudon, as the title of one of his latest books (2011) suggests, sociology was a science in the strict sense of the term. In a similar vein, he also tried to show in numerous articles and books all the havoc that ideological and cultural relativism could inflict.

A very prolific author, arguably making him one of the major sociologists of the twentieth century, he was also an editor. At the PUF publishing house he was until recently head of the “Sociologies” collection, which featured both translations of classic works and publications by young authors. For many years he also directed Année Sociologique, the journal founded by Emile Durkheim.

As a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, he played an active role promoting research projects. He was also a member of many prestigious foreign academies, such as the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Raymond Boudon graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure with a degree in philosophy and taught throughout his career – many of his works are marked by a strong pedagogical approach. He wanted to make the great authors known, often in a new light, and to bring to life key concepts of sociology, for example, through the Dictionnaire critique de la sociologie and Traité de sociologie, which he directed. He was of course also a researcher, in the field of methods and theories as well as in empirical analysis. At the CNRS, he founded and for many years headed up the Study Group on Sociological Methods and Analysis.

Exacting in his scientific approach to social facts, unperturbed by not following the latest fashion, and with an impressive oeuvre translated into many languages​​, Raymond Boudon was, nevertheless, very simple and approachable, as all those who knew him can attest. Beyond the scholar whose work will remain, first and foremost we have lost a militant humanist.


Cyprus: Aphrodite to the rescue?

By Céline Antonin and Sandrine Levasseur

For two weeks Cyprus sent tremors through the European Union. If the banking crisis that the island is going through has attracted much attention, it is essentially for two reasons. First, because the dithering over the rescue plan led to a crisis of confidence in deposit insurance, and second, because it was the first time that the European Union had allowed a bank to fail without coming to its aid. While the method of resolving the Cyprus crisis seems to represent an institutional advance [1], insofar as investors have been forced to face up to their responsibilities and citizens no longer have to pay for the mistakes of the banks, the impact of the purge of the island’s real economy will nevertheless be massive. With its heavy dependence on the banking and financial sector, Cyprus is likely to face a severe recession and will have to reinvent a growth model in the years to come. In this respect, the exploitation of natural gas resources seems an interesting prospect that should not be ruled out in the medium / long term.

To grasp what is at stake in Cyprus today, let us briefly recall the facts. On 25 June 2012, Cyprus requested financial assistance from the EU and the IMF, essentially in order to bail out its two main banks (Laiki Bank and Bank of Cyprus), whose losses are estimated at 4.5 billion euros due to their high exposure to Greece. Cypriot banks were hit both by the depreciation of the Greek assets they held on their balance sheets and by the partial write-down of Greek debt  under the second bail-out plan (PSI Plan of March 2012 [2]). Cyprus estimated that it needed 17 billion euros in total over four years to prop up its economy and its banks, about one year of the island’s GDP (17.9 billion euros in 2012). But its backers were not ready to give it this much: the national debt, which had already reached 71.1% of GDP in 2011, would become unsustainable. The IMF and the euro zone thus came to an agreement on a smaller loan, with a maximum amount of 10 billion euros (9 billion financed by the euro zone and 1 billion by the IMF) to recapitalize the Cypriot banks and finance the island’s budget for three years. Cyprus was in turn ordered to find the remaining 7 billion through various reforms: privatizations, an increase in corporate tax from 10 to 12.5%, and a windfall tax on bank deposits.

Initially [3], Nicosia decided to introduce a one-off tax of 6.75% on deposits of between 20,000 and 100,000 euros and 9.9% on those above 100,000 euros, and a withholding tax on interest on these deposits. Given the magnitude of the resulting protest, the government revised its approach, and the taxation of deposits gave way to a bankruptcy and restructuring. The solution adopted concerned the country’s two main banks, Laïki Bank and Bank of Cyprus. Laïki was closed and split into two: first, a “good bank” that will take over the insured deposits (less than 100,000 euros) and the loans from the ECB to Laïki [4], but which will also take over its assets and ultimately be absorbed by Bank of Cyprus; and second, a “bad bank” that will accommodate the stocks, bonds, unsecured deposits (above 100,000 euros), and which will be used to pay off Laïki‘s debts [4], according to the order of priority associated with bank liquidations (depositors being paid first). In addition to absorbing the “good bank” hived off of Laïki, Bank of Cyprus will freeze its unsecured deposits, some of which will be converted into shares to be used in its recapitalization. To prevent a flight of deposits, temporary [5] capital controls were put in place.

This plan introduces a paradigm shift in the method of resolving banking crises in the European Union. At the beginning of the euro zone crisis, in particular in the emblematic case of Ireland, the European Union considered that creditors had to be spared in the event of losses, under the logic of “too big to fail”, and it called on the European taxpayer. But in 2012, even before the declaration of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Europe’s doctrine had already begun to bend [6]. Hence, on 6 June 2012, the European Commission proposed a Directive on the reorganization and resolution of failing credit institutions, which provided for calling on shareholders and bondholders to contribute. [7] However, the rules on creditors are to apply only from 2018, after approval of the text by the Council and the European Parliament. This type of approach is now being tested experimentally in the Cyprus crisis.

Heavy consequences for the real economy

The situation of the country before 2008

In the period preceding the global economic crisis, the Cypriot economy was thriving, and indeed in 2007 even in danger of overheating. Over the period 2000-2006, its GDP grew on average by 3.6% per year, with growth of 5.1% in 2007. The unemployment rate was low (4.2% in 2007), with even some labour shortage as a result of the emigration of Cypriot nationals to other EU countries. The influx of foreign workers into Cyprus helped to hold down wages. Consumer spending and, to an even greater extent, business investment, which were largely financed through credit, were particularly dynamic starting in 2004, with growth rates that in 2007 reached, respectively, 10.2% and 13.4%. Inflation was moderate, and in this generally positive context, Cyprus qualified to adopt the euro on 1 January 2008.

In this pre-crisis period, the Cypriot economy – a small, very open economy – relied in the main on two sectors: tourism and financial services.

The two key sectors of the Cypriot economy

Revenue from tourism (Table 1) has provided a relatively stable financial windfall for the Cypriot economy. This (non-cyclical) flow brings in approximately 2 billion euros annually. [8] As a share of GDP, however, the weight of tourism has decreased by half since 2000, to a level of less than 11% in 2012. Likewise, the share of tourism in the export of services fell sharply during the last decade: in 2012, it accounted for 27% (against 45% in 2000). Over the last 15 years, the number of tourists has fluctuated somewhat between 2.1 million (in 2009) and 2.7 million (2000), compared with about 850,000 people who are residents of the island.

Financial services constitute the other pillar of the Cypriot economy (Table 2). Two figures give a clear idea of its significance: bank assets accounted for more than 7.2 times GDP in 2012 (with a maximum of 8.3 achieved in 2009), and the stock of FDI in the sector “Finance & Insurance” is estimated at more than 35% of GDP, i.e. more than 40% of all FDI inflows.

As major sources of wealth for the Cypriot economy, these two sectors have played an important role by, at least until 2007, compensating (partially) the considerable deficit in the balance of payments, which has risen continuously since the early 1990s and fluctuated at around 30% of GDP since 2000 (Table 3). The “fuel” bill has been an increasing burden on imports into Cyprus, mainly due to higher oil prices: the energy bill has tripled over the last decade, rising from 461 million euros in 2000 to 1.4 billion in 2011. As a percentage of GDP, the rise in energy costs has also been very visible, as it has shot up from 5% of GDP in 2000 to 8% in 2011.

Reducing the size of the financial sector therefore raises the question of a new growth model for the Cypriot economy, i.e. its “industrial conversion”.


The temptation to exit the euro

The plan decided by the Troika undermines the island’s growth model by penalizing the country’s hyper-financialization, and condemns it to years of recession. To avoid a long convalescence, the idea of ​​leaving the euro zone has taken root, as it did in Greece. However, leaving the euro zone is far from a panacea. Regaining monetary sovereignty undeniably offers certain advantages, as is described by C. Antonin and C. Blot in their note, Comparative study of Ireland and Iceland: first, an internal devaluation (through lower wages) would not be as effective as an external devaluation (through exchange rates); second, fiscal consolidation is less costly when it is accompanied by a favourable exchange rate policy. Nevertheless, given the structure of the Cypriot economy, we do not think that leaving the euro is desirable.

In fact, upon leaving the euro, the Central Bank of Cyprus would issue a new currency. Assuming it remains convertible, this currency would depreciate vis-à-vis the euro. By way of comparison, between July 2007 and December 2008 the Icelandic krona lost 50% of its value vis-à-vis the euro. Such a depreciation would have two consequences:

– One, an improvement in competitiveness (the real exchange rate has appreciated by 10% since 2000), which would boost exports and help reduce the deficit in the balance of trade in goods and services (Table 1). Since the accession of Cyprus to the European Union in 2004, this balance has deteriorated as a result of several factors: first, the slowing of inflation from 2004 related to pegging the exchange rate to the euro, which encouraged the growth of real wages at a higher rate than productivity gains; and second, the boom in bank lending, with the substantial decline in risk premiums on loans as a result of accession to the EU [9]. Consumption was boosted, the competitiveness of the Cypriot economy deteriorated, and imports increased. Would exiting the euro reverse this trend? This is the argument of Paul Krugman, who supports Cyprus leaving the euro zone by evoking a tourist boom and the development of new export-oriented industries. However, according to our calculations, a 50% depreciation in the real exchange rate would result in an increase in the value of exports of 500 million euros, including 150 million from additional tourism revenue. [10] As for imports, they are weakly substitutable, as they are composed of energy and capital and consumer goods. Given the weakness of the country’s industries, Cyprus will not be able to undertake a major industrial restructuring in the short or medium term. There are therefore limits to improvements in the trade balance. Furthermore, inflation would increase, including through imported inflation, which would lead to a fall in consumer purchasing power and mitigate any competitiveness gains.

–  In addition, the devaluation would substantially increase the burden of the outstanding debt, but also of private debt denominated in foreign currency. Net foreign debt in Cyprus is low, at 41% of GDP in 2012. In contrast, public debt reached 70% of GDP, or 12.8 billion euros. 99.7% of the public debt is denominated in euros or in a currency that is part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (and thus pegged to the euro), and 53% of this debt is held by non-residents. In addition, the deficit was 6.3% of GDP. If Cyprus no longer had the euro, it would without doubt default on part of its public debt, which would temporarily deprive the country of access to foreign capital, and thus require the kind of violent fiscal consolidation that Argentina went through in 2001.

The exploitation of natural gas resources

The crisis in Cyprus raises the question of the natural gas discoveries in the south of the island in the early 2000s. According to the US Geological Survey, the Levant Basin located between Cyprus and Israel could contain 3,400 billion cu.m of gas resources. By way of comparison, the entire EU has 2,400 billion cu.m (mainly in the North Sea).

Cyprus thus has a priori a major natural gas bonanza, even if all of the deposits are not located in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). At present, only one out of the twelve parcels of land belonging to the Cypriot EEZ has been subject to exploratory drilling, and in December 2011 a deposit of 224 billion cu.m of natural gas was discovered. According to the Government of Cyprus, the value of this field, called Aphrodite, is estimated at 100 billion euros[11]. The exploration of the other eleven parcels belonging to the Cypriot EEZ could prove successful (or even very successful) in terms of natural gas resources. As the licenses for the exploration of these eleven parcels are in the process of being awarded by the Cypriot authorities, the EU could have used the (sad) occasion of the rescue package to secure a portion of the aid granted to Cyprus on its gas potential. Why did the EU not seize on such an occasion?

For the EU, the discovery of the natural gas reserves is good news, in the sense that the exploitation of these deposits will help it to achieve the energy diversification that it values so highly. However, several problems have arisen, problems that darken the prospects for exploiting the gas fields in the very near future. First of all, the discovery of gas reserves in the Levant basin has revived tensions with Turkey, which occupies the northern part of the island of Cyprus and which believes it has rights to the exploitation of the fields. The growing number of Turkish military manoeuvres reflects an effort to impose its presence in the areas being surveyed and could lead to an escalation of violence in the region, especially since the Greek-Cypriot authorities (the southern part) have been working with Israel to defend the gas fields. [12] Second, even assuming that the Greek-Turkish dispute is resolved, the exploitation of the gas will require heavy investment in infrastructure, in particular the construction of an LNG tanker whose cost is estimated at 10 billion euros. Finally, there will be no immediate return on the investment, as it will take at least eight years to put in place the necessary infrastructure. In these conditions, it is understandable why the EU did not take the opportunity to secure some of the aid to Cyprus against these gas resources: exploitation is still too uncertain and, in any case, the horizon is too distant (given the immediacy required for a response to the crisis).

Furthermore, the EU would likely wind up in an awkward situation vis-à-vis several countries. If the EU supports Cyprus in the gas dispute, this comes down to supporting Israel, at the very time that the EU is holding negotiations on Turkey’s membership and is trying to build good relations in the region, including with the regimes that have emerged from the “Arab Spring”. In addition, two pipeline projects are already in competition: the South Stream project, linking Russia to Western Europe by 2015, and Nabucco, connecting Iran, via Turkey, to Western Europe by 2017. A new gas pipeline connecting the Cypriot fields to the European continent would further reduce Russia’s bargaining power, by shifting the centre of gravity of natural gas southwards. This would promote greater dispersion and intensify geopolitical divisions in Europe, between a Northern Europe (including Germany) supplied by Russia and a Southern  Europe dependent on the Middle East and Turkey.


If in the immediacy of the crisis the EU has made the right choice (that of the “bad” and “good” bank), the question is posed in the medium / long term of a new growth model for the Cypriot economy. Given the comparative advantages of Cyprus, the exploitation of natural gas seems to offer the only serious solution for the economy’s conversion. However, for this strategy to be achievable, the EU will have to take a clear position in favour of Cyprus in the Greek-Turkish dispute.

Not only would the exploitation of the gas bring Cyprus energy self-sufficiency, it would also constitute a major source of revenue for the island. Energy costs would cease being a burden on the balance of payments (Table 1). This is especially important, because, even though tourism (another pillar of the economy) has provided a stable (non-cyclical) source of income since 2000, it is not immune to geopolitical events in the region or to new competition over tourist destinations, in particular from the “Arab Spring” countries.

Consider this simple calculation. Suppose Cyprus manages to maintain its tourism revenues at the level of 2 billion euros (an assumption that, despite the caveats outlined above, is nevertheless realistic); in the absence of industrial restructuring, if the share of the banking sector in the economy is halved (as desired by the Troika and common sense), then Cypriot GDP would return to its 2003 level, or slightly less than 12 billion euros. And GDP per capita would fall by about a third….

Industrial reconversion is thus important for the Cypriot economy, just as for other economies in crisis…. except that Cyprus has Aphrodite.


[1] See Henri Sterdyniak and Anne-Laure Delatte,  ”Cyprus: a well-conceived plan, a country in ruins…”., OFCE blog, March 2013.

[2] See Céline Antonin, Would returning to the drachma be an overwhelming tragedy?, OFCE Note no. 20, 19 June 2012.

[3] For more on the dithering on the rescue plan, see Jérôme Creel, “The Cypri-hot case!”,  OFCE blog, March 2013.

[4] These loans, granted via Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), amount to 9 billion euros.

[5] Article 63 of the Treaty of the European Union prohibits restrictions on the movement of capital, but Article 64b authorizes Member states to take control measures for reasons of public order or public safety.

[6]If the bank can’t recapitalize itself, then we’ll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders. We’ll ask them to contribute in recapitalizing the bank. And if necessary the uninsured deposit holders, statement by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, 25 March 2013, to the Financial Times.


[8] The tourist revenue of Cyprus depends in the main on tourists from Britain (43% in 2011), Russia (14%), Germany and Greece (6.5 % each).

[9] On the factors worsening the current accounts, see Natixis, Retour sur la crise chypriote, novembre 2012.

[10] Estimation made using the elasticities calculated by the IMF.

[11] Not far from Aphrodite, 700 billion cu.m of deposits were discovered in the Israeli EEZ, proof that the region is rich in natural gas.

[12] The tensions between Cyprus (southern part) and Israel were resolved (peacefully) by the signing of a treaty in December 2010 defining their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The two entities also plan to cooperate in the construction of common infrastructures to exploit the gas. See the analysis of Angélique Palle on the geopolitical consequences of the discovery of these natural gas resources in the Levant basin.

And what if the austerity budget has succeeded better in France than elsewhere? [1]

By Mathieu Plane

Faced with a rapid and explosive deterioration in their public accounts, the industrialized countries, particularly in Europe, have implemented large-scale austerity policies, some as early as 2010, in order to quickly reduce their deficits. In a situation like this, several questions about France’s fiscal policy need to be examined:

– First, has France made a greater or lesser fiscal effort than other OECD countries to deal with its public accounts?

– Second, is there a singularity in the fiscal austerity policy implemented by France and has it had more or less effect on growth and the level of unemployment?

With the notable exception of Japan, between 2010 and 2013 all the major OECD countries implemented policies to reduce their primary structural deficits [2]. According to the latest OECD figures, these policies represented a fiscal effort of about 5 percentage points of GDP over three years on average in the euro zone, the United States and the United Kingdom. In contrast, the differences within the euro zone itself were very large: they range from only 0.7 percentage points in Finland to more than 18 points in Greece. Among the major industrialized countries of the OECD, France is, after Spain, the country that has made the greatest fiscal effort since 2010 from a structural viewpoint (5.7 percentage points of GDP over three years). In the post-World War 2 era, France has never experienced such a brutal and sustained adjustment in its public accounts. For the record, the budget effort that took place in the previous period of sharp fiscal consolidation from 1994 to 1997 was twice as small (a cumulative negative fiscal impulse of 3.3 GDP points). Between 2010 and 2013, the cyclically adjusted tax burden increased in France by 3.8 GDP points, and the structural effort on public spending represented a gain of 1.9 GDP points over four years (Figure 1). Among the OECD countries, it was France that made the greatest cyclically adjusted increase in the tax burden in the period 2010-2013. Finally, from 2010 to 2013, the structural effort to reduce the public deficit broke down as follows: two-thirds involved an increase in the tax burden and one-third came from public spending. This breakdown is different from that observed on average in the euro zone, where the fiscal effort over the period 2010-13 involved a nearly 60% reduction in public expenditure, rising to over 80% in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland. In contrast, in Belgium, the entirety of the fiscal effort came from a higher tax burden. And in the case of Finland, primary structural public spending in points of potential GDP rose over the period 2010-2013, which was more than offset by the increase in the tax burden.

While France’s substantial budgetary efforts have undeniably had a negative impact on economic activity and employment, it is nevertheless true that the budget decisions of the various governments since 2010 appear to have affected growth and the labour market relatively less than in most other countries in the euro zone. Within the euro zone-11, from 2010 to 2013 only four countries – Germany, Finland, Austria and Belgium – experienced average growth of over 1% per year, with unemployment rates that not only did not increase, but occasionally even fell. However, these are also the four countries that made the smallest reductions in their structural deficits over this period. France, on the other hand, is among the countries that made the greatest structural effort since 2010, and it has simultaneously managed to contain the rise in unemployment to some extent. Indeed, compared with the Netherlands, Italy and the euro zone average, France’s fiscal policy was more restrictive by about 1 GDP point from 2010 to 2013, yet the unemployment rate increased by 40% less than in the Netherlands, 60% less than the euro zone average and more than two times less than in Italy. Likewise, growth in France was higher on average over this period: 0.9% per year, against 0.5% in the Netherlands, 0.7% in the euro zone and ‑0.2% in Italy.

Why has the French fiscal contraction had less impact on growth and employment than in most other countries? Beyond the economic fundamentals, some evidence suggests that the budget decisions of the successive governments since 2010 may have led to fiscal multipliers that are lower than in the other countries. After Finland and Belgium, France is the country where public spending played the smallest role in reducing the structural deficit. As illustrated by recent studies, in particular the IMF study and the article signed by economists from the central banks in Europe and the U.S., the European Commission, the OECD and the IMF, targeting fiscal adjustment through raising the tax burden rather than cutting public spending has given France smaller short-term fiscal multipliers than those observed in countries that have made ​​the opposite choice (Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain). In the case of France, nearly 50% of the fiscal adjustment was achieved by an increase in the direct taxation of household and business income (Table 1). And as has also been the case for the United States, Belgium and Austria, which achieved between 50% and 75% of their fiscal adjustment by increasing direct taxation, it seems that these countries have also done best at maintaining their growth in the face of the budget cuts. Conversely, the ones that have used this lever the least in their fiscal adjustments are the southern European countries and the Netherlands.


[1] This post makes use of certain parts of the article published in Alternatives Economiques, M. Plane, “L’austérité peut-elle réussir en France ?”, Special issue no. 96, 2nd quarter 2013.

[2] The primary structural deficit measures the structural fiscal effort made ​​by general government (les administrations publiques). It corresponds to the public balance, excluding interest charges, that would be generated by the government if the GDP of the economy were at its potential level. This measure is used to adjust the public balance for cyclical effects.



Zero interest loans: only for the rich?

By Pierre Madec

On 1 January 2013, a new version of the zero-interest loan (prêt à taux zéro – PTZ) came into force. It is more restrictive than previous versions, with lower eligibility ceilings and a sharper focus on new housing (and old “HLM” council housing). Here we review the measure’s possible consequences.

Given the great pressure on today’s rental market (Le Bayon, Madec and Rifflart, 2013), the goal of facilitating access to homeownership for first-time buyers with low down payments is commendable. Nevertheless, some questions need to be asked: are the poorest households the primary beneficiaries? Does a PTZ loan trigger the purchase of a first principal residence (an incentive effect) or does it simply accompany the purchase (a windfall effect)? Has the development of PTZ loans and their long-term implementation significantly helped expand supply on the market for new properties? And is the budgetary expenditure associated with the measure cost-effective in light of the overall results?

Established in 1995 to facilitate access to homeownership for poorer households, zero interest loans have evolved since then along with budgetary constraints and political decisions. In 2005, the scheme, previously reserved for the purchase of a new home (or an existing home needing extensive renovation), was extended to include the acquisition of existing homes with no conditions on renovation in order to increase homeownership in areas with a shortage of land (including Paris). This led to doubling the number of PTZ loans granted in 2005. Similarly, in 2011, the removal of eligibility ceilings allowed the programme to set a record with the grant of nearly 352,000 PTZ loans. In the context of the fiscal and real estate crisis, the reappearance in 2012 of ceilings on income and the elimination of old dwellings (excluding HLM housing) from the programme’s eligibility list reduced the number of PTZ loans to a historically low level (64,000).

On paper, the principle of this “reimbursable non-interest-bearing loan” is simple: in return for the agreement of a loan at zero interest, the banks benefit from a tax credit in the amount of the uncollected interest. This loan, which is limited to a certain loan-to-value ratio [1], must be associated with a mortgage, or principal loan, and can therefore be considered as a personal contribution during the acquisition of the principal residence, thus at the time the principal loan is granted.

In fact, calculating the volume of PTZ loans granted is complex, as it involves ceilings on income and on the transaction amounts, which depend on the geographical area and the loan-to-value ratio. Similarly, the terms of repayment (the duration and grace period) are defined based on membership in an “repayment bracket” (tranche de remboursement) that is calculated based on the household’s resources and composition.

Are PTZ loans stimulating the supply of housing on the market for new properties?

One of the stated objectives when creating the programme was to support and boost a sluggish market for new properties. It is actually difficult to assess the impact of PTZ loans on the construction market. Observing the evolution of the number of dwellings constructed before and after the implementation of PTZ loans (Figure 1), it does not appear that the 150,000 PTZ loans granted in 1996 had a significant impact on the volume of new housing units. From this quick observation seems to emerge the idea that even without the programme, and taking into account the rather mild economic situation, the housing market would have been equally dynamic. Similarly, the growth observed on the new property market over the period 1999-2007 is not attributable to the programme to facilitate homeownership [2].

According to the latest available statistics (SGFGAS 2012), as with incentive schemes for rental investment (Madec 2013, Levasseur 2011), the zones established during the implementation of PTZ loans leave it very difficult to direct investment into the areas under the greatest pressure. Thus, in the third quarter of 2012, more than half of PTZ loans were granted for purchases in Zone C, that is to say, the area least susceptible to market pressures (against 15% for Zone A [3]). This is largely explained by the extreme scarcity (and high cost) of land in Zones A and B. It was in order to end this form of geographical discrimination that in 2005 the system was opened to old housing. Over the period 2005-2011, more than a million PTZ loans were granted for the acquisition of an existing dwelling, thereby betraying one of the initial objectives of the programme.

Finally, despite a willingness to promote high environmental quality housing, including through the provision of higher loan-to-value ratios for energy-efficient housing (BBC) [4], the PTZ loans have played only a small role in the construction of BBC housing, as in the third quarter of 2012 two-thirds of the loans granted were for the purchase of housing that does not meet BBC standards.


Do PTZ loans facilitate homeownership for poorer households?

One of the main criticisms of PTZ loans is the poor quality of the targeting. Whereas the purpose of the programme is to help households in the greatest difficulty by financing an initial down payment, the particularly high level of the income ceilings (when they are not simply eliminated entirely as in 2011) has meant eligibility for households with no a priori need for the State in order to acquire property. For example, the eligibility ceiling in 2012 was 43,500 euros annually for one person wishing to acquire a principal residence in Zone A. This ceiling made ​​90% of households in the Paris region eligible for PTZ loans (source: INSEE) [5].

Furthermore, numerous studies have attempted to measure the impact of PTZ loans on household financing capacity (ANIL 2011, Beaubrun-Diant 2011, Gobillon and Le Blanc 2005, Thomas and Grillon 2001). Gobillon et al. thus concluded that PTZ loans “trigger the purchase” for only 15% of homebuyers. In other words, according to the model proposed by the authors, 85% of households have access to the property with or without the PTZ. Similarly, recent studies on the profile of homebuyers (Le Bayon, Levasseur et Madec 2013, Babès Bigot Hoibian 2012, INSEE 2010) highlight how it is becoming increasingly difficult for poorer households to purchase a home. Thus, according to Le Bayon et al., households in the lowest quartile of living standards, the households targeted by the homeownership programme, have seen their chance of acquiring a principal residence halved between 2004 and 2010. In view of these various results, it seems that the PTZ loan programme is having difficulty, at least in its earlier versions, playing a role in helping low-income households to become homeowners. This conclusion may need to be nuanced, however, if we look at the latest statistics provided by the SGFGAS. According to these data, workers and employees accounted for 25% and 33% respectively of the recipients of PTZ loans in the third quarter of 2012. Similarly, one out of three recipients belonged to the lowest “repayment bracket”. However, as the calculation of these brackets takes into account particularly high income ceilings, membership in the first repayment bracket is not really equivalent to meeting “poverty criteria”.

Finally, by increasing demand for new housing on a market with low supply elasticity and by allowing many households to acquire more expensive housing, programmes to assist homeownership have long been reproached for their inflationary effects (ANIL, 2002).

The PTZ programme:how much does it cost?

For 2012, the cost to the State for the PTZ programme was 1.34 billion euros. Given the number of beneficiaries, this may seem expensive, but, like all public assistance programmes, it needs to be analyzed in terms of efficiency.

A quick assessment can be made of the impact of the PTZ programme on housing investment. To estimate the multiplier effect of the PTZ programme in 2012, we used the latest available statistics (SGFGAS 2012) and made the following assumptions [6]:

  • 50% of the beneficiaries belonging to the lowest (Tranche 1) repayment bracket are what are called “triggered” households (i.e. 15 % of all beneficiaries);
  • Thanks to a PTZ loan, “non-triggered” households increase the amount of their purchase by 3%.



Overall, therefore, according to our estimates and under the assumptions spelled out above, in 2012 the PTZ programme stimulated almost 2 billion euros in investment in housing at a tax cost of 1.3 billion euros. The multiplier effect was therefore 1.5. This is in the lower range of what has been observed in other countries with similar programmes (1.5 to 2). This multiplier could be much higher if households were targeted more rigorously. Indeed, for the “Tranche 1” repayment bracket, under the above assumptions and considering that this segment accounts for half of the tax expenditure (a generous assumption), the multiplier is 2.6. However, we are still far from the optimal theoretical multiplier of 6 estimated by Gobillon and White [7].

What about the 2013 version of the PTZ?

To deal with the various criticisms that have been raised, on 1 January the government attempted to improve the conditions for access to the PTZ programme by:

  • Reducing eligibility ceilings from 17% (in zone A) to 30% (in zone C);
  • Freezing ceilings on the transaction cost in new housing and ex-HLM (council) housing;
  • Lowering the loan-to-value ratios;
  • Re-establishing repayment deferrals of up to 15 years for households in the lowest repayment bracket.

For the most part, these measures will help to target assistance for homeownership more accurately. However, some improvements could still be made. In 2013, the income ceilings for Zone A still include about 80% of inhabitants of the Paris region. In addition, the possibility of acquiring existing HLM council housing, which is potentially very energy-consuming, seems inconsistent with the promotion of new energy-efficient housing. For low-income households in high-demand areas, would it not be better to promote the purchase of housing that, while not new, has energy characteristics closer to what is required for new housing?

Likewise, re-establishing the principle of repayment deferrals of up to 15 years could prove objectionable. Indeed, it may lead to undermining the solvency of some households by reducing the duration of their principal loan. The banks, taking into account the deferral, tend to align the duration of the principal loan with the duration of the deferral in order to avoid an excessive jump in the future monthly repayment. So, the deferral may on the contrary increase the risk of default, as, once the deferral is over, households may be hit by a surge in their monthly payments (Bosvieux and Vorms, 2003).

Finally, the freeze on transaction ceilings cannot be sustained given first, the growing gap that exists between the ceilings and market prices, and second, the continuous increase in construction costs resulting from the normative inflation experienced by the sector.

To conclude, it is important to take note of the existence of a debate over the very need for a programme to assist homeownership: should the State encourage, assist or finance homeownership for renters? Should taxpayers help renters to become homeowners, as with tax incentives for investment in rental housing? For the poorest households, who find it impossible to come up with a sufficient personal contribution for a purchase, it may seem reasonable to assume that the State is playing its role by helping the most vulnerable to follow the standard residential trajectory, from cohabitation with parents to rental and then ownership. For others, we cannot rule out the existence of significant windfall effects, as outlined above. To avoid these problems and improve the financial positions of the households originally targeted by the programme, a thorough overhaul of programmes to promote homeownership (social or otherwise) is essential.

[1] That is, a maximum percentage of the amount of the transaction.

[2] The new property market was, for the period under consideration, boosted strongly by programmes to stimulate rental investment (see Le Bayon et al. 2013).

[3] Paris, the near suburbs and part of the outer suburbs.

[4] In 2012, for purchases in Zone A, the loan-to-value ratio was 38% for new energy-efficient (BBC) housing versus 26% for non-BBC.

[5] For an annual income of 43,500 euros, assuming a rate of 3.2%, borrowing capacity came to an average of 260,000 euros (excluding the PTZ loan), i.e. a housing unit of at least 50 sq.m in the near Paris suburbs (excluding the communes bordering Paris).

[6] These assumptions are in accord with the results of the modelling proposed by Gobillon and Le Blanc (2005). The latter found a multiplier effect for the PTZ programme on the order of 1.1 to 1.3.

[7] This multiplier was estimated by assuming perfect targeting for the programme, that is, that all the beneficiaries are “triggered” households.

Cyprus: a well-conceived plan, a country in ruins…

By Anne-Laure Delatte and Henri Sterdyniak

The plan that has just been adopted sounds the death knell for the banking haven in Cyprus and implements a new principle for crisis resolution in the euro zone: banks must be saved by the shareholders and creditors without using public money. [1] This principle is fair. Nevertheless, the recession in Cyprus will be deep, and the new extension of the Troika’s powers further discredits the European project. Once again the latest developments in the crisis are laying bare the deficiencies in euro zone governance. It is necessary to save the euro zone almost every quarter, but every rescue renders the zone’s structure even more fragile.

Cyprus never should have been accepted into the euro zone. But Europe privileged expansion over coherence and depth. Cyprus is a banking, tax and regulatory haven, which taxes companies at the rate of only 10%, while the balance sheet of its oversized banking system is nearly eight times its GDP (18 billion euros). Cyprus is in fact a transit hub for Russian capital: the Cypriot banks have about 20 billion euros in deposits from Russia, along with 12 billion euros in deposits of Russian banks. These funds, sometimes of dubious origin, are often reinvested in Russia: Cyprus is the largest foreign investor in Russia, to the tune of about 13 billion euros per year. Thus, by passing through Cyprus, some Russian capital is laundered and legally secured. As Europe is very committed to the principle of the free movement of capital and the freedom of establishment, it has simply let this go.

Having invested in Greek government debt and granted loans to Greek companies that are unable to pay due to the crisis, the island’s oversized banking system has lost a lot of money and has fostered a housing bubble that burst, resulting in heavy losses. Given the size of the banking system’s balance sheet, these losses represent a significant share of national GDP. The banking system is in trouble, and as a consequence the markets speculated against Cypriot government debt, interest rates rose, the country plunged into a recession, and the deficit deepened. In 2012, growth was negative (-2.5%); the deficit has reached 5.5% of GDP, the public debt has risen to 87% of GDP, the trade deficit stands at 6% of GDP, and the unemployment rate is 14.7%.

The country needed assistance both to finance itself and to recapitalize its banks. Cyprus requested 17 billion euros, the equivalent of its annual GDP. Ten billion euros of loans were granted, of which nine will be provided by the ESM and one by the IMF. From a financial point of view, the EU certainly did not need that billion, which merely gives the IMF a place at the negotiating table.

In exchange, Cyprus will have to comply with the requirements of the Troika, i.e. reductions of 15% in civil servant salaries and 10% in spending on social welfare (pensions, family allowances and unemployment), the introduction of structural reforms, and privatization. It is the fourth country in Europe to be managed by the Troika, which can once again impose its dogmatic recipes.

Cyprus is to lift its tax rate on corporations from 10 to 12.5%, which is low, but Europe could not ask Cyprus to do more than Ireland. Cyprus must increase the tax rate on bank interest from 15 to 30%. This is a timid step in the direction of the necessary tax harmonization.

But what about the banks? The countries of Europe were faced with a difficult choice:

–          helping Cyprus to save its banking system amounted to saving Russian capital with European taxpayers’ money, and showed that Europe would cover all the abuses of its Member States, which would have poured more fuel on the fire in Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.

–          asking Cyprus to recapitalize its banks itself would push its public debt up to more than 150% of GDP, an unsustainable level.

The first plan, released on 16 March, called for a 6.75% contribution from deposits of less than 100,000 euros and applied a levy of only 9.9% on the share of deposits exceeding this amount. In the mind of the Cypriot government, this arrangement had the advantage of not so heavily compromising the future of Cyprus as a base of Russian capital. But it called into question the commitment by the EU (the guarantee of deposits under 100,000 euros), which undermined all the banks in the euro zone.

Europe finally reached the right decision: not to make the people alone pay, to respect the guarantee of 100,000 euros, but to make the banks’ shareholders pay, along with their creditors and holders of deposits of over 100,000 euros. It is legitimate to include those with large deposits that had been remunerated at high interest rates. It is the model of Iceland, and not Ireland, that has been adopted: in case of banking difficulties, large deposits remunerated at high rates should not be treated as public debt, at the expense of the taxpayers.

Under the second plan, the country’s two largest banks, the Bank of Cyprus (BOC) and Laiki, which together account for 80% of the country’s bank assets, are being restructured. Laiki, which was hit hardest by developments in Greece and which was more heavily involved in the collection of Russian deposits, has been closed, with deposits of less than 100,000 euros transferred to the BOC, which takes over Laiki’s assets, while it also takes charge of the 9 billion euros that the ECB has lent it. Laiki customers lose the portion of their deposits over 100,000 euros (4.2 billion), while holders of Laiki equities and bonds lose everything. At the BOC, the excesses of deposits above 100,000 euros are placed in a bad bank and frozen until the restructuring of the BOC is completed, and a portion of these (up to 40%) will be converted into BOC shares in order to recapitalize the bank. Hence the 10 billion euro loan from the EU will not be used to resolve the banking problem. It will instead allow the government to repay its private creditors and avoid a sovereign bankruptcy. Remember that the national and European taxpayers are not called on to repair the excesses of the world of finance.

This is also a first application of the banking union. Deposits are indeed guaranteed up to 100,000 euros. As requested by the German government, the banks must be saved by the shareholders and creditors, without public money. The cost of bailing out the banks should be borne by those who have benefited from the system when it was generating benefits.

From our viewpoint, the great advantage is ending the poorly controlled financial status of Cyprus. It is a healthy precedent that will discourage cross-border investment. It is of course regrettable that Europe is not attacking other countries whose banking and financial systems are also oversized (Malta, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom) and other regulatory and tax havens (the Channel Islands, Ireland, the Netherlands), but it is a first step.

This plan is thus well thought-out. But as was modestly acknowledged by the Vice-President of the European Commission, Olli Rehn, the near future will be very difficult for Cyprus and its people. What are the risks?

Risk of a deposit flight and liquidity crisis: unlike the initial plan, which called for a levy on all deposits, the new plan is consistent with reopening the banks relatively quickly. In fact, the banks are staying closed as long as the authorities fear massive withdrawals by depositors, which would automatically lead to a liquidity crisis for the banks concerned. However, as small depositors are not affected and large depositors have their assets frozen until further notice, it seems that the risk of a bank run can be ruled out. A problem will nevertheless arise when the large deposits are unfrozen. Their almost certain withdrawal will very likely result in a loss of liquidity for the BOC, which will need to be compensated by specially provided liquidity lines at the ECB. Some small depositors who take fright could also withdraw their funds. Similarly, holders of large deposits in other banks, although in less difficulty and thus not affected, could worry that the levies will be extended in the future and therefore try to move their money abroad. Cyprus remains at the mercy of a liquidity crisis. This is why the authorities have announced exceptional controls on capital movements when the banks reopen, so as to prevent a massive flight of deposits abroad. This is a novelty for the EU. But the transition, which means shrinking the Cypriot banking sector from 8 times the island’s GDP to 3.5 times, could well prove difficult and may have some contagion effects on the European markets, since the banks will have to sell a significant amount of assets.

Risk of a long recession: the halving of the size of the banking sector will not take place painlessly, as the entire economy will suffer: bank employees, service partners, attorneys, consultants, auditors, etc. Some Cypriot companies, along with some wealthy households, will lose part of their bank holdings.

However, the plan requires simultaneous fiscal austerity measures (on the order of 4.5% of GDP), structural reforms and the privatizations so dear to Europe’s institutions. These austerity measures, coming at a time when key economic activity is being sacrificed, will lead to a lengthy recession. The Cypriots all have in mind the example of Greece, where consumption has fallen by more than 30% and GDP by over 25%. This shrinkage will lead to lower tax revenues, a higher debt ratio, etc. Europe will then demand more austerity measures. Seeing another country trapped in this spiral will further discredit the European project.

Some desire to pull out of the euro zone has been simmering since the beginning of the crisis in Cyprus, and there is little chance that it will die out now.

It is therefore necessary to give new opportunities to Cyprus (and to Greece and Portugal and Spain), not the economic and social ruin imposed by the Troika, but an economic revival involving a plan for industrial reconversion and reconstruction. For example, the exploitation of the gas fields discovered in 2011 on the south of the island could offer a way out of the crisis. It would still be necessary to finance the investment required to exploit them and generate the financial resources the country needs. It is time to mobilize genuine assistance, a new Marshall Plan financed by the countries running a surplus.

Risk of chain reactions in the banking systems of other Member States: the European authorities must make a major effort at communications to explain this plan, and that is not easy. From this point of view, the first plan was a disaster, as it demonstrated that the guarantee of deposits of less than 100,000 euros can be annulled by tax measures. For the second plan, the authorities must simultaneously explain that the plan is consistent with the principle of the banking union – to make the shareholders, creditors and major depositors pay – while clarifying that it has a specific character – to put an end to a bank, fiscal and regulatory haven, and so will not apply to other countries. Let’s hope that the shareholders, creditors and major depositors in the banks in the other Member States, particularly Spain, will allow themselves to be convinced. Otherwise significant amounts of capital will flee the euro zone.

Risk of weakening the banking union: the Cypriot banking system was of course poorly managed and controlled. It took unnecessary risks by attracting deposits at high rates that it used to make profitable but risky loans, many of which have failed. But the Cypriot banks are also victims of the default on the Greek debt and of the deep-going recession faced by their neighbours. All of Europe is in danger of falling like dominoes: the recession weakens the banks, which can no longer lend, which accentuates the recession, and so on.

Europe plans to establish a banking union that will impose strict standards for banks with respect to crisis resolution measures. Each bank will have to write a “living will” requiring that any losses be borne by its shareholders, creditors and major depositors. The handling of the Cyprus crisis is an illustration of this. Also, the banks that need capital, creditors and deposits to comply with the constraints of Basel III will find it harder to attract them and must pay them high rates that incorporate risk premiums.

The banking union will not be a bed of roses. Bank balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before they get a collective guarantee. This will pose a problem in many countries whose banking sector needs to be reduced and restructured, with all the social and economic problems that entails (Spain, Malta, Slovenia, etc.). There will inevitably be conflicts between the ECB and the countries concerned.

Deposit insurance will long remain the responsibility of the individual country. In any event, it will be necessary in the future banking union to distinguish clearly between deposits guaranteed by public money (which must be reimbursed at limited rates and must not be placed on financial markets) and all the rest. This argues for a rapid implementation of the Liikanen report. But will there be an agreement in Europe on the future structure of the banking sector between countries whose banking systems are so very different?

The Cypriot banks lost heavily in Greece. This argues once again for some re-nationalization of banking activities. Banks run great risks when lending on large foreign markets with which they are not familiar. Allowing banks to attract deposits from non-residents by offering high interest rates or tax or regulatory concessions leads to failures. The banking union must choose between the freedom of establishment (any bank can move freely within the EU countries and conduct whatever activities it chooses) and the principle of liability (countries are responsible for their banking systems, whose size must stay in line with that of the country itself).

In the coming years, the necessary restructuring of the European banking system thus risks undermining the ability of banks to dispense credit at a time when businesses are already reluctant to invest and when countries are being forced to implement drastic austerity plans.

In sum, the principle of making the financial sector pay for its excesses is beginning to take shape in Europe. Unfortunately, the Cyprus crisis shows once again the inconsistencies of European governance: to trigger European solidarity, things had to slide to the very edge, at the risk of going right over the cliff. Furthermore, this solidarity could plunge Cyprus into misery. The lessons of the past three years do not seem to have been fully drawn by Europe’s leaders.

[1] The over 50% reduction of the face value of Greek bonds held by private agents in February 2012 already went in this direction.

The Cypri-hot case!

By Jérôme Creel

In advance of a more in-depth study of the crisis in Cyprus and its impact on the euro zone, here are a few thoughts on the draft agreement reached last Monday morning, 25 March, between the Cypriot Presidency and some of the donors.

This proposal provides for the winding up of a private bank, Laiki, and shifting of its insured deposits (under 100,000 euros) to another private bank, the Bank of Cyprus, as part of its recapitalization. Deposits in the Bank of Cyprus in excess of 100,000 euros will be frozen and converted into shares. Ultimately, the Bank of Cyprus should be able to achieve a capital ratio of 9%, complying with applicable EU banking legislation. In exchange for these provisions and for an increase in taxes on capital gains and corporate profits, the European institutions will contribute 10 billion euros to Cyprus. Bank deposits guaranteed under the rules in force in the EU will still be insured, while the increase in capital gains taxes will reduce the remuneration of deposits in Cyprus, which have been above the European average.

In one week, the negotiations between the Cypriot authorities, the IMF and Europe’s institutions have led to radically different results. For the part of the rescue plan needed for the viability of the banking system, the Cypriot President was apparently faced with a choice between a levy on all depositors, including “small savers”, and a bank failure that would entail financial losses only for shareholders, bondholders and “big savers” (those with deposits of over 100,000 euros). It thus took a week for the democratically elected representative of a Member State of the European Union to give in and uphold the interests of the many (the general interest?) over the interests of the few, a handful of bankers.

The March 25th draft agreement also included a very interesting reference to the issue of money laundering. Cypriot banks will undergo audits to better understand the origin of the funds they collect. This time it did not take a week, but rather years for members of the Eurogroup to deal formally with a basic question about the operation of the Cypriot economy. Beyond Cyprus itself, there is reason to wonder whether there isn’t funny money in the EU too.

One final thought about the International Monetary Fund, the donor partner that together with the European Central Bank and the European Commission makes up the Troika. It seems that it set many of the requirements: should we conclude that the IMF has much more bargaining power than the ECB and the European Commission, that it is the leader of this Troika? If this is so, it would raise some problems: first, the ECB and the Commission are supposed to defend the interests of Europe, which would not be the case if these two institutions were under the thumb of the IMF. Second, we should not forget that during the recapitalization of April 2009, the IMF received additional funds from the EU countries, which was a wise decision on their part if their representatives anticipated that soon they would need recourse to bailout funds, with the funds allocated to the IMF returning back to the EU in the form of loans. That said, having the IMF dictate drastic conditions for qualifying for bailout funds that have largely been contributed by from the EU itself is questionable, and would undermine the process of European integration.