Public debt: Central banks to the rescue?

By Christophe Blot and Paul Hubert

In response to the health and economic crisis, governments have implemented numerous emergency measures that have pushed public debt up steeply. They have nevertheless not experienced any real difficulty in financing these massive new issues: despite record levels of public debt, the cost has fallen sharply (see Plus ou moins de dette publique en France ?, by Xavier Ragot). This trend is the result of structural factors related to an abundance of savings globally and to strong demand for secure liquid assets, characteristics that are generally met by government securities. The trend is also related to the securities purchasing programmes of the central banks, which have been stepped up since the outbreak of the pandemic. For the year 2020 as a whole, the European Central Bank acquired nearly 800 billion euros worth of securities issued by the governments of the euro zone countries. In these circumstances, the central banks are holding an increasingly high fraction of the debt stock, leading to a de facto coordination of monetary and fiscal policies.

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Waiting for the recovery in the US

By Christophe Blot

As with the economic performance of all the industrialized countries, economic activity fell off sharply in the second quarter of 2020 across the Atlantic before rebounding just as sharply the following quarter. The management of the crisis in the US is largely in the hands of the different States, and the election of Joe Biden should not change this framework since he declared on November 19 that he would not order a national lockdown. However, the health situation is continuing to deteriorate, with more than 200,000 new Covid-19 cases per day on average since the beginning of December. As a result, many States are adopting more restrictive prophylactic measures, although without returning to a lockdown like the one in the Spring. This situation could dampen economic prospects for the end of the year and also for the start of the mandate of the new President elected in November. Above all, it makes it even more necessary to implement a new recovery plan, which was delayed by the election.

As in the euro zone, recovery in the US kicked off as soon as the lockdown was lifted. GDP grew by 7.4% in the third quarter after falling by 9% in the previous quarter. Compared with the level of activity at the end of 2019, the economic downturn amounted to 3.5 points, versus 4.4 points in the euro zone. The labour market situation also improved rapidly, with the unemployment rate falling by 8 points, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for November, from its April peak of 14.7%. These results are the logical consequence of the lifting of restrictions but also of the large-scale stimulus plans approved in March and April, which have massively absorbed the loss of income for households and to a lesser extent for US companies (see here). However, the upturn in consumption is still being dampened by some ongoing restrictions, particularly in sectors with strong social interactions, where spending is still nearly 25% lower than it was in the fourth quarter of 2019 (Figure 1). As for the consumption of goods, it has been much less affected by the crisis and is down only 12% from its pre-crisis level for durable goods and 4.4% for non-durable goods. Nevertheless, most of these support measures have come to an end, and as of this writing the discussions that began in late summer in Congress have not yet led to an agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Despite the rebound, the health impact of the pandemic and the economic consequences of the lockdown on the labour market require a discretionary policy in a country where the automatic stabilizers are generally considered to be weaker[1]. New support measures will be all the more necessary as a further tightening of restrictions is looming and the recovery seem to be running out of steam. The initial consumption figures for the month of October point to a fall in the consumption of services, and employment also stabilized in November, remaining well below its level at the end of 2019.

However, after the setback of the discussions in Congress, it will now be necessary to wait until the first quarter of 2021 for a new support plan to be approved and for a possible reorientation of US fiscal policy after Joe Biden’s victory. In the Autumn, the Democrats proposed a 2 trillion dollar (9.5 GDP points) package, almost as much as the 2.4 trillion dollar (10.6 GDP points) package adopted in March-April 2020[2]. The aid would, among other things, support the purchasing power of the unemployed through an additional federal payment. Although unemployment is much lower than in the second quarter, it remains above its pre-crisis level and is now characterized by an increase in long-term unemployment for which there is generally no compensation. In November, the share of those who had been unemployed for at least 27 weeks was 37 per cent (or 3.9 million people, Figure 2), and the median duration of unemployment had risen from 9 weeks at the end of 2019 to almost 19 weeks in November 2020. In addition, States whose tax revenues have decreased with the crisis could benefit from a federal transfer, thereby avoiding spending cuts[3].

However, despite the end of the suspense over the outcome of the presidential elections, the political and economic uncertainty has not been completely resolved. Indeed, it will not be known until early January whether the Democrats will also have a majority in Congress. They have certainly kept the House of Representatives, but it will be necessary to wait until the beginning of January for the Senate, with a ballot planned in Georgia that will determine the political colour of the last two seats [4]. Both seats are now held by Republican senators. However, Joe Biden won Georgia by 0.2 points against Donald Trump, the first victory in the State for a Democratic candidate since 1992. With both State-wide senatorial elections to be contested directly, the results are likely to be close.  If one of the Democratic candidates is defeated, Joe Biden will be forced to contend with the opposition. But, as Paul Krugman points out, the Republicans are generally more inclined, once in opposition, to promote austerity. This is reflected in the uncertainty indicators of Bloom, Baker and Davies, whose economic policy uncertainty rose in November (Figure 3). This uncertainty is certainly lower than in the Spring but remains higher than that observed between 2016 and 2019. During this period, growth could weaken, and then a strong recovery is likely to be followed by more subdued growth, which will have repercussions on the labour market. Regardless of the outcome, a plan will likely be approved in the first quarter of 2021, but its adoption could take longer if it is conditional on an agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. However, this could be lengthy given the urgency of the health and social crisis, and could plunge a significant proportion of the most vulnerable into poverty.

Source : Baker, Bloom & Davis. https://www.policyuncertainty.com/index.html


[1] See for example Dolls, M., Fuest, C. & Peichl, A., 2012, “Automatic stabilizers and economic crisis: US vs. Europe”, Journal of Public Economics, 96(3-4), pp. 279-294.

[2] By comparison, the European programmes are weaker, ranging from 2.6 GDP points for France to 7.2 points for the UK.

[3] Note that the States generally have fiscal rules limiting their capacity to run a deficit.

[4] Of the 100 seats in the Senate, the Republicans already hold 50. In the event of a tie between the two parties, it is the voice of the Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris that will decide between them. A single victory in Georgia would therefore allow the Republicans to retain the majority.

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Europe/US: How has fiscal policy supported income?

By Christophe BlotMagali Dauvin and Raul Sampognaro

The sharp fall in activity and its brutal social consequences have led governments and central banks to enact ambitious support measures to cushion the shock, which resulted in an unprecedented global recession in the first half of 2020, as discussed in Policy Brief 78 . Faced with a health crisis that is unprecedented in contemporary history, requiring forced shutdowns to curb the spread of the virus, governments have taken urgent measures to prevent the onset of an uncontrolled crisis that could permanently alter the economic trajectory. Three main types of measures have been taken: some aim to maintain consumer purchasing power in the face of the shutdowns; others seek to preserve the production system by targeting business; and some are specific to the health sector. The quarterly national accounts, available at the end of the first half of the year, provide an update on the extent to which the disposable income of private agents has been preserved by fiscal policy at this stage of the Covid-19 crisis [2].

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What more could the central banks do to deal with the crisis?

By Christophe Blot and Paul Hubert

The return of new lockdown measures in numerous countries is expected to slow the pace of economic recovery and even lead to another downturn in activity towards the end of the year. To address this risk, governments are announcing new support measures that in some cases supplement the stimulus plans enacted in the autumn. No additional monetary policy measures have yet been announced. But with rates close to or at 0% and with a massive bond purchase policy, one wonders whether the central banks still have any manoeuvring room. In practice, they could continue QE programmes and increase the volume of asset purchases. But other options are also conceivable, such as monetizing the public debt.

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Europe’s recovery plan: Watch out for inconsistency!

by Jérôme Creel (OFCE & ESCP Business School) [1]

On 27 May, the European Commission proposed the creation of a new financial instrument, Next Generation EU, endowed with 750 billion euros. The plan rests on several pillars, and will notably be accompanied by a new scheme to promote the revival of activity in the countries hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis. It comes on top of the Pandemic Crisis Support adopted by the European Council in April 2020. A new programme called the Recovery and Resilience Facility will have firepower of 560 billion euros, roughly the same amount as the Pandemic Crisis Support. The Recovery and Resilience Facility stands out, however, for two reasons: first, by the fact that part of its budget will go to grants rather than loans; and second, by its much longer time horizon.

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Sweden and Covid-19: No lockdown doesn’t mean no recession

By Magali Dauvin and Raul Sampognaro, DAP OFCE

Since the Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival on the old continent, a number of countries have taken strict measures to limit outbreaks of contamination. Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom belatedly stood out with especially strict measures, including lockdowns of the population not working in key sectors. Sweden, in contrast, has distinguished itself by the absence of any lockdown. While public events have been banned, as in the other major European countries, there were no administrative orders to close shops or to impose legal constraints on domestic travel[1].

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Germany on the slippery slope of the research tax credit

by Evens Salies and Sarah Guillou

After years of hesitation, the German parliament has just introduced a tax scheme to promote investment in R&D. The decision precedes the Covid-19 crisis, but it may well be heaven-sent for German business.

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How to spend it: A proposal for a European Covid-19 recovery programme

Jérôme Creel, Mario Holzner, Francesco Saraceno, Andrew Watt and Jérôme Wittwer[1]

The Recovery Fund recently proposed by the EU Commission marks a sea-change in European integration. Yet it will not be enough to meet the challenges Europe faces. There has been much public debate about financing, but little about the sort of concrete projects that the EU should be putting public money into. We propose in Policy Brief n°72 a 10-year, €2tn investment programme focusing on public health, transport infrastructure and energy/decarbonisation.

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The COVID-19 crisis and the US labour market: Rising inequality and precariousness in perspective

By Christophe Blot

In the United States as in France, the COVID-19 crisis has led to numerous measures restricting economic activities intended to limit the spread of the virus. The result will be a fall in GDP, which is already showing up in figures for the first quarter of 2020, and which will be much steeper in the second quarter. In a country noted for its weak employment protection, this unprecedented recession is quickly having repercussions on the labour market, as reflected in the rise in the unemployment rate from a low point of 3.5% in February to 14.7% in April, a level not seen since 1948. As Bruno Ducoudré and Pierre Madec have recently demonstrated in the case of France, the current crisis in the United States should also result in heightened inequalities and insecurity. And the shock will be all the greater in the US since the social safety net is less extensive there.

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What can we learn from the Finnish experiment with a universal income?

By Guillaume Allègre

Between 2017 and 2018, Finland conducted an experiment with universal income that gave rise to significant media coverage. 2,000 unemployed people receiving the basic unemployment benefit (560 euros per month) received the same amount in the form of unconditional income, which could be combined with income from work for the duration of the experiment (2 years, not renewable). On 6 May 2020, the final report evaluating the experiment was published (here is a summary of the results). The evaluators concluded that the experimental universal income had moderate positive effects on employment and positive effects on economic security and mental health. According to the final report, on average individuals in the treatment group worked approximately 6 additional working days (they worked 78 days). They experienced significantly less mental stress, depression and loneliness, and their cognitive functioning was perceived as better. Life satisfaction was also significantly higher. The results of the experiment therefore seem to argue in favour of a universal income. But is it really possible to draw lessons from the experiment with a view to generalizing the system? In 2018, I wrote that experimenting with universal income was “impossible“. Does the Finnish experience contradict this claim? It turns out that it is indeed difficult to draw lessons.

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