So far so good …


By Christophe Blot

The euro zone is still in recession. According to Eurostat, GDP fell again in the fourth quarter of 2012 (‑0.6%). This figure, which was below expectations, is the worst quarterly performance in the euro zone since the first quarter of 2009, and it is also the fifth consecutive quarter of a decline in activity. For 2012 as a whole, GDP decreased by 0.5%. This annual figure masks substantial heterogeneity in the zone (Figures 1 and 2), since Germany posted annual growth of 0.9% while for the second consecutive year Greece is likely to suffer a recession of more than 6%. Moreover, taking all the countries together, the growth rate will be lower in 2012 than in 2011, and some countries (Spain and Italy to name but two) will sink deeper into depression. This performance is all the more worrying as several months of renewed optimism had aroused hopes that the euro zone was recovering from the crisis. Were there grounds for such hope?

Although it is very cautious about growth for 2012, the European Commission, in its annual report on growth, noted the return of some good news. In particular, the fall in long-term sovereign rates in Spain and Italy and the success on the financial markets of the public debt issues by Ireland and Portugal reflected renewed confidence. It is clear now however that confidence is not enough. Domestic demand has stalled in France and is in freefall in Spain. All this is hurting trade within the zone, since a decline in imports by one country means a decline in exports from others, which is amplifying the recessive dynamics afflicting the countries in the zone as a whole. As we noted in our previous forecasting exercise and on the occasion of the publication of the iAGS (independent Annual Growth Survey), a recovery cannot in any case rely solely on a return of confidence so long as highly restrictive fiscal policies are being carried out synchronously throughout Europe.

Since the third quarter of 2011, the signals have all confirmed our scenario and showed that the euro zone has gradually sunk into a new recession. Unemployment has continued to rise, setting new records every month. In December 2012, according to Eurostat 11.7% of the euro zone working population were jobless. However, neither the European Commission nor the European governments have adjusted their fiscal strategy, arguing that fiscal efforts were needed to restore credibility and confidence, which would in turn lower interest rates and create a healthy environment for future growth. In doing this, the Commission has systematically underestimated the recessionary impact of the fiscal consolidation measures and has ignored the increasingly abundant literature showing that the multipliers rise in times of crisis and may be substantially higher than one (see the post by Eric Heyer on this subject). Advocates of fiscal austerity also believe that the costs of such a strategy are inevitable and temporary. They view fiscal consolidation as a prerequisite for a return to growth and downplay the long-term costs of such a strategy.

This dogmatic blindness recalls the final comment in the film La Haine (directed by Mathieu Kassovitz): “This is the story of a society that is falling, and to reassure itself as it falls constantly repeats, so far so good, so far so good, so far so good … what’s important is not the fall, it’s the landing.” It is time to recognize that the economic policy in force since 2011 has been a mistake. It is not creating the conditions for a recovery. Worse, it is directly responsible for the return of recession and for the social catastrophe that is continuing to deepen in Europe. As we have shown, other strategies are possible. They do not neglect the importance of eventually making the public finances sustainable once again. By postponing and reducing the scale of austerity (see the note by Marion Cochard, Bruno Ducoudré and Danielle Schweisguth), it would be possible to make more rapid progress in restoring growth and cutting unemployment.