Plea for a growth pact: the sound and fury hiding a persistent disagreement
The emphasis on the need to complement fiscal restraint by measures to boost growth, which is rising in part due to the electoral debate in France, is good news, not least because it represents a belated recognition that austerity is imposing an excessively high price on the countries of southern Europe.
Nevertheless, there is nothing new about invoking growth, and this may remain without consequence. In 1997, as a result of a French government intervention, the Stability Pact became the Stability and Growth Pact, but this had no significant impact on the nature of strategy, which remained fully oriented towards the implementation of strict monetary and fiscal rules and a constant search for more flexible markets.
Last week, Mario Draghi, along with Manuel Barroso and Mario Monti, were worried not only about the recession taking place in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain but also about the need to respond formally to a request that may come from a new French government. They too are arguing for a negotiated Growth Pact, while taking care to note that it must consist of a common commitment to carry out structural reforms wherever they have not yet been made. This position echoes the February letter of the eleven Prime Ministers to the European authorities. In other words, nothing is to change in the doctrine that determines the choice of Europe’s economic policy: growth can be achieved only through structural reform, in particular of the labour markets.
There are two grounds for criticizing this position. It is far from sure that structural reform is effective, unless, that is, it is wielded in a non-cooperative spirit to improve the competitiveness of the country that undertakes the reform at the expense of its trading partners, as Germany was able to do with the Hartz reforms. Secondly, widespread reform, including where this is justified in terms of long-term growth, would initially have a recessionary impact on demand , and hence on activity. Reform cannot therefore deal with what is actually the immediate top-priority requirement, namely stemming the spreading recession.
The real challenge facing Europeans is to reconcile the short term and the long term. The solution proposed so far, general fiscal austerity aimed at restoring the confidence of private actors, which would be complemented by structural reforms intended to increase the potential growth rate, just doesn’t work. This can be seen by developments in Greece, as well as in Portugal and Ireland, which are model students of Europe’s bailout plans, and also in Britain, Italy and Spain. The fiscal multipliers remain firmly Keynesian (see Christina Romer, and Creel, Heyer and Plane), and any “non-Keynesian” effects on expectations are limited or nonexistent.
Growth can neither be decreed nor established instantly, unlike the deflationary austerity spiral in which more and more European countries are currently trapped.
Growth is likely to materialize only if fiscal consolidation is neither immediate nor drastic – in fact, only if the consolidation required of countries in difficulty is spread over time (beyond the year 2013, which in any case will be impossible to achieve) and if the countries that are able to carry out a more expansionary fiscal policy actually do this in such a way that at the European level the overall impact is neutral or, even better, expansionary. This strategy would not necessarily be punished by the markets, which have shown recently that they are sensitive to the requirement for growth. Otherwise, steps should be taken by the ECB to deal with the constraints imposed by the markets. This short-term support must be accompanied by substantial medium-term investment made through European industrial programs financed by the issuance of Eurobonds – which would mean, finally, a European budget on a scale large enough to handle the tasks facing the Union. This method of coordinating short- and medium-term choices would be an important step towards the establishment of the kind of federal structure that alone will allow the resolution of the “European question”.
 R.M. Solow, Introduction to Solow, R.M. Ed. (2004), Structural Reforms and Macroeconomic Policy, London: Macmillan).