Between 2007 and 2015, Greece’s public debt rose from 103% to 179%  of its GDP (see chart below). The debt-to-GDP ratio rose at an uninterrupted pace, except for a 12-point fall in 2012 following the restructuring imposed on private creditors, and despite the implementation of two macroeconomic adjustment programs (and the beginning of a third) that were aimed precisely at redressing the Greek government’s accounts. Austerity has plunged the country into a recessionary and deflationary spiral, making it difficult if not impossible to reduce the debt. The question of a further restructuring is now sharply posed. Continue reading “Why can’t Greece get out of debt?”
The duration of the Greek crisis and the harshness of the series of austerity plans that have been imposed on it to straighten out its public finances and put it in a position to meet its obligations to its creditors have upset European public opinion and attracted great comment. The hard-fought agreement reached on Monday 13 July at the summit of the euro zone heads of state and government, along with the demands made prior to the Greek referendum on 5 July, which were rejected by a majority of voters, contain conditions that are so unusual and so contrary to State sovereignty as we are used to conceiving of it that they shocked many of Europe’s citizens and strengthened the arguments of eurosceptics, who see all this as proof that European governance is being exercised contrary to democracy.
Is France implementing an austerity policy? How can it be measured? Although this question is a subject of ongoing public debate, it hasn’t really been settled. For many observers, the relative resilience of wage dynamics indicates that France has not carried out an austerity policy, unlike certain neighbours in southern Europe, in particular Spain and Greece, where nominal labour costs have fallen. Others conclude that France cannot have practiced austerity since government spending has continued to rise since the onset of the crisis. The 50 billion euros in savings over the period 2015-17 announced by the Government would therefore only be the beginning of the turn to austerity.
Furthermore, if we adhere to the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact, the degree of restriction or expansion of a fiscal policy can be measured by the change in the primary structural balance, which is also called the fiscal impulse. This includes on one side the efforts made on primary public spending (i.e. excluding interest) relative to the change in potential GDP, and on the other side the change in the tax burden in GDP points. Thus, over the period 2011-13, France’s primary structural balance improved by 2.5 percentage points of GDP according to the OECD, by 2.7 points according to the European Commission, and by 3.5 points according to the OFCE. While there are significant differences in the measurement of fiscal austerity during this period, the fact remains that, depending on the method of calculation, it amounted to between 55 and 75 billion euros over three years.
A different way of measuring the extent of fiscal austerity involves looking at the change in the components of household purchasing power. Purchasing power can in fact be used to identify the channels for transmitting austerity, whether this is through labour income or capital, benefits or the tax burden on households. Changes in the components of income clearly show that there was a pre-crisis and a post-crisis in terms of the dynamics of purchasing power per household.
Over the period 2000-2007, purchasing power grew by more than 4000 euros per household …
This corresponds to an average increase of about 500 euros per year per household  (Table) over the eight years preceding the subprime crisis, a growth rate of 1.1% per year. On the resource side, real labour income per household (which includes the EBITDA of the self-employed), supported by the creation of more than 2 million full-time equivalent jobs over the period 2000 to 2007, increased on average by 0.9% per year. But it is above all real capital income per household (which includes the imputed rents of households occupying the accommodation that they own) that increased dramatically over this period, rising twice as fast (1.7% on average per year) as real labour income. As for social benefits in cash, these increased by 1% on average in real terms in this period, i.e. a rate equivalent to the rate for total resources. As for levies, tax and social contributions from 2000 to 2007 have helped to reduce purchasing power per household by 0.9 points per year, which corresponds to about 100 euros per year on average. Breaking down the increase in levies, 85% came from social contributions (employees and self-employed), mainly due to hikes in premiums related to pension reform. Taxes on income and wealth contributed to cutting purchasing power per household by only 14 euros per year, despite a sharp increase in capital income and property prices over the period 2000-2007. During this period, taxes on households deflated by consumer prices increased by less than 2%, whereas real household resources grew by almost 9% and real capital income by 14%. The reduction in income tax, which began under the Jospin government, and was continued by Jacques Chirac during his second term, explains in large part why taxes have had so little negative impact on purchasing power during this period.
…but over the period 2008-2015, purchasing power per household fell by more than 1600 euros
The crisis marks a sharp turn with respect to past trends. Indeed, over the period 2008-2015, purchasing power per household fell, on average, by almost 1630 euros, or 230 euros per year.
Over the eight years since the start of the crisis, we can distinguish three sub-periods:
– The first, from 2008 to 2010, following the subprime crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, is characterized by the relatively high resistance of purchasing power per household, which increased by nearly 40 euros per year on average, despite the loss of 250,000 jobs over this period and the sharp decline in capital income (200 euros on average per year per household). On the one hand, the sharp drop in oil prices from mid-2008 had the effect of supporting real income, including real wages, which increased 0.9% annually. On the other hand, the stimulus package and the shock absorbers of France’s social security system played their countercyclical role by propping up average purchasing power through a sharp rise in social benefits in kind (340 euros on average per year household) and a slightly positive contribution by taxes to purchasing power.
– The second period, from 2011 to 2013, is marked by intense fiscal consolidation; this is a period in which the tax burden increased by about 70 billion euros in three years, with a massive impact on purchasing power. Higher tax and social security charges wound up eroding purchasing power by 930 euros per household, more than 300 euros on average per year. Moreover, the very small increase in employment (+32,000) and stagnating real wages, combined with the impact of an increase in the number of households (0.9% annually), led to a reduction in real labour income per household of almost 230 euros per year. In addition, real capital income per household continued to make a negative contribution to purchasing power from 2011 to 2013 (-105 euros on average per year per household). Finally, although social benefits were slowing compared to the previous period, they were the only factor making a positive contribution to purchasing power (about 120 euros per year per household). In the end, purchasing power per household fell by 1,630 euros in three years.
– The third period, 2014 and 2015, will see yet another slight reduction in household purchasing power, amounting to about 110 euros in two years. The weak situation of employment and real wages will not offset the increase in the number of households. Thus, real labour income per household will decline slightly over the two years (-43 euros per year on average). Real capital income will, in turn, be roughly neutral in terms of its effect on purchasing power per household. Although they are not rising as much, tax and social contributions will continue to weigh on purchasing power due to the ramp-up of certain tax measures approved in the past (environmental taxes, higher pension contributions, local taxes, etc.). In total, the increase in the rate of levies on households in 2014-15 will reduce purchasing power per household by 170 euros. In addition, the expected savings on public spending will hold back growth in social benefits per household, which will rise by only about 60 euros per year on average, a rate that is half as high as the pre-crisis period despite the worsening social situation.
While this analysis does not tell us about the distribution per quantile of the change in purchasing power per household, it nevertheless provides a macro view of the impact of austerity on purchasing power since 2011. Out of the 1750 euros per household lost in purchasing power from 2011 to 2015 (see Figure), 1100 euros is directly related to higher taxes and social contributions. In addition to the direct impact of austerity, there is the more indirect impact on the other components of purchasing power. In fact, by cutting activity through the mechanism of the fiscal multiplier, France’s austerity policy has had a massive impact on the labour market, by either reducing employment or holding down real wages. While the magnitude is difficult to assess, the fact remains that real labour income per household fell by 770 euros in five years. Finally, while since the onset of the crisis social benefits have up to now acted as a major shock absorber for purchasing power, the extent of savings in public spending planned from 2015 (out of the 21 billion euros in savings in 2015, 9.6 billion will come from social security and 2.4 billion from spending on state interventions) will have a mechanical impact on the dynamics of purchasing power.
Thus, with purchasing power per household falling in 2015 to its level of thirteen years ago and having suffered a historic decline in 2011-13 in a period of unprecedented fiscal consolidation, it seems difficult to argue on the one hand that France has not practiced austerity so far and on the other hand that it is not facing any problem with short-term demand.
 Since 2011, the rate of growth of public spending in volume has been positive, but has halved compared to the decade 2000-10 (1.1% in volume over the period 2011-14, against 2.2% over the period 2000-10). Moreover, in the last four years, it has increased at a rate slightly below the rate of potential GDP (1.4%). From an economic point of view, this corresponds to an improvement in the structural balance due to an adjustment in public spending of 0.5 percentage point of GDP over the period 2011-14.
 These differences in the measurement of austerity come from differences in a number of evaluation factors, such as the level of potential GDP and its growth rate, which serve as the benchmark for calculating the structural fiscal adjustment.
 It is important to note that gross disposable income includes only income related to cash benefits (pensions, unemployment benefits, family allowances, etc.) but not social transfers in kind (health care, education, etc.) or public collective expenditures that benefit households (police, justice, defence, etc.).
 Here we use the concept of average purchasing power per household and not purchasing power per consumption unit.
Following discussions with our colleagues from the European Commission , we return to the causes of the prolonged period of recession experienced by the euro zone since 2009. We continue to believe that premature fiscal austerity has been a major political error and that an alternative policy would have been possible. The economists of the European Commission for their part continue to argue that there was no alternative to the strategy they advocated. It is worth examining these conflicting opinions. Continue reading “Manic-depressive austerity: let’s talk about it!”
Since 2010, the European Commission has published the Annual Growth Survey to stimulate discussion on the occasion of the European semester, during which the governments and parliaments of the Member States, the Commission, and civil society discuss and develop the economic strategies of the various European countries. We considered it important to participate in this debate by publishing simultaneously with the Commission an independent Annual Growth Survey (iAGS), in collaboration with the IMK, a German institute, and the ECLM, a Danish institute. In the 2014 iAGS, for instance, we estimate the cost of the austerity measures enacted since 2011. This austerity policy, which was implemented while the fiscal multipliers were very high and on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, was followed simultaneously by most euro zone countries. This resulted in lopping 3.2% off euro zone GDP for 2013. An alternative strategy, resulting after 20 years in the same GDP-to-debt ratios (i.e. 60% in most countries), would have been possible by not seeking to reduce public deficits in the short term when the multipliers are high. In order to lower the fiscal multipliers again, it’s necessary to reduce unemployment, build up agents’ balance sheets and get out of the liquidity trap. A more limited but ongoing adjustment strategy, just as fiscally rigorous but more suited to the economic situation, would have led to 2.3 additional points of GDP in 2013, which would have been much better than under the brutal austerity we find ourselves in today. This means there would not have been a recession in 2012 or 2013 for the euro zone as a whole (see the figure below: GDP in million euros). Continue reading “From austerity to stagnation”
By Marion Cochard and Danielle Schweisguth
On 29 May, the European Commission sent the members of the European Union its new economic policy recommendations. As part of this, the Commission granted France an additional two years to reach the deficit reduction target of 3%. This target is now set for 2015, and to achieve this the European Commission is calling for fiscal impulses of -1.3 GDP points in 2013 and -0.8 point in 2014 (see “Austerity in Europe: a change of course?”). This would ease the structural effort needed, since the implementation of the previous commitments would have required impulses of -2.1 and -1.3 GDP points for 2013 and 2014, respectively. Continue reading “France: why such zeal?”
By Eric Heyer and Hervé Péléraux
At the end of 2012, five years after the start of the crisis, France’s GDP has still not returned to its earlier level (Figure 1). At the same time, the labour force in France has grown steadily and technical progress has constantly raised workers’ productivity. We are therefore more numerous and more productive than 5 years ago when output was lower: the explosion in unemployment is a symptom of this mismatch. Why had the shoots of recovery seen in 2009 been choked off by mid-2010? Continue reading “What factors have put the brakes on growth since 2010?”
By Eric Heyer
On April 17, the government presented its Stability Programme for 2013-2017 for the French economy. For the next two years (2013-2014), the government has relied on the projections of the European Commission in forecasting growth of 0.1% in 2013 and 1.2% in 2014. Our purpose here is not to revisit these forecasts, though they do seem overly optimistic, but rather to discuss the analysis and outlook for France for the period 2015-2017 that is explicit and sometimes implicit in this document. Continue reading “France’s Stability Programme: the missing line”
By Eric Heyer
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. Continue reading “Holding to the required course”
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? Continue reading “And what if the austerity budget has succeeded better in France than elsewhere? ”