Major adjustments are awaiting the euro zone

By Bruno Ducoudré, Xavier Timbeau and Sébastien Villemot

Current account imbalances are at the heart of the process that led to the crisis in the euro zone starting in 2009. The initial years of the euro, up to the crisis of 2007-2008, were a period that saw widening imbalances between the countries of the so-called North (or the core) and those of the South (or the periphery) of Europe, as can be seen in Figure 1.

IMG1_post20-06_ENGThe trend towards diverging current account balances slowed sharply after 2009, and external deficits disappeared in almost all the euro zone countries. Despite this, there is still a significant gap between the northern and southern countries, so there cannot yet be any talk about reconvergence. Moreover, the fact that the deficits have fallen (Italian and Spanish) but not the surpluses (German and Dutch) has radically changed the ratio of the euro zone to the rest of the world: while the zone’s current account was close to balanced between 2001 and 2008, a significant surplus has formed since 2010, reaching 3.3% of GDP in 2016. In other words, the imbalance that was internal to the euro zone has shifted into an external imbalance between the euro zone and the rest of the world, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom. This imbalance is feeding Donald Trump’s protectionism and putting pressure on exchange rates. While the nominal exchange rate internal to the euro zone is not an adjustment variable, the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar can adjust.

It seems unlikely that the euro zone can maintain a surplus like this over the long run. Admittedly, the pressures for the appreciation of the euro are now being contained by the particularly accommodative monetary policy of the European Central Bank (ECB), but when the time comes for the normalization of monetary policies, it is likely that the euro will appreciate significantly. In addition to having a deflationary impact, this could rekindle the crisis in the zone by once again deepening the Southern countries’ external deficits due to their loss in competitiveness. This will in turn give new grounds for leaving the euro zone.

In a recent study [1], we seek to quantify the adjustments that remain to be made in order to resolve these various current account imbalances, both within the euro zone and vis-à-vis the rest of the world. To do this, we estimate equilibrium real exchange rates at two levels. First, from the point of view of the euro zone as a whole, with the idea that the adjustment of the real exchange rate will pass through an adjustment of the nominal exchange rate, notably the euro vis-à-vis the dollar: we estimate the long-term target of euro / dollar parity at USD 1.35 per euro. Next, we calculate equilibrium real exchange rates within the euro zone, because while the nominal exchange rate between the member countries does not change because of the monetary union, relative price levels allow adjustments in the real exchange rate. Our estimates indicate that substantial misalignments remain (see Figure 2), with the average (in absolute terms) misalignment relative to the level of the euro being 11% in 2016. The relative nominal differential between Germany and France comes to 25%.

IMG2_post20-06_ENGIn the current situation, claims by some euro zone countries are not accumulating on others in the zone, but there is accumulation by some euro zone countries on other countries around the world. This time the exchange rate (actual, weighted by accumulated gross assets) can serve as an adjustment variable. The appreciation of the euro would therefore reduce the euro zone’s current account surplus and depreciate the value of assets, which are probably accumulated in foreign currency. France however now appears as the last country in the euro zone running a significant deficit. Relative to the zone’s other countries, it is France that is contributing most (negatively) to the imbalances with Germany (positively). If the euro appreciates, it is likely that France’s situation would further deteriorate and that we would see a situation where the net internal position accumulates, but this time between France (on the debtor side) and Germany (creditor). This would not be comparable to the situation prior to 2012, since France is a bigger country than Greece or Portugal, and therefore the question of sustainability would be posed in very different terms. On the other hand, reabsorbing this imbalance by an adjustment of prices would require an order of magnitude such that, given the relative price differentials that would likely be needed between France and Germany, it would take several decades to achieve. It is also striking that, all things considered, since 2012, when France undertook a costly reduction in wages through the CICE tax credit and the Responsibility Pact, and Germany introduced a minimum wage and has been experiencing more wage growth in a labour market that is close to full employment, the relative imbalance between France and Germany, expressed in the adjustment of relative prices, has not budged.

Three consequences can be drawn from this analysis:

  1. The disequilibrium that has set in today will be difficult to reverse, and any move to speed this up is welcome. Ongoing moderation in rises in nominal wages in France, stimulating the growth of nominal wages in Germany, restoring the share of German added value going to wages, and continuing to boost the minimum wage are all paths that have been mentioned in the various iAGS reports. A reverse social VAT, or at least a reduction in VAT in Germany, would also be a way to reduce Germany’s national savings and, together with an increase in German social security contributions, would boost the competitiveness of other countries in the euro zone;
  2. The pre-crisis internal imbalance has become an external imbalance in the euro zone, which is leading to pressure for a real appreciation of the euro. The order of magnitude is significant: it will weigh on the competitiveness of the different countries in the euro zone and will lead to the problems familiar prior to 2012 resurfacing in a different form;
  3. The appreciation of the euro caused by the current account surpluses in certain euro zone countries is generating an externality for the euro zone countries. Because their current accounts respond differently to a change in relative prices, Italy and Spain will see their current account balance react the most, while Germany’s will react the least. In other words, the appreciation of the euro, relatively, will hit the current accounts of Italy and Spain harder than Germany’s and will lead to a situation of internal imbalance much like what existed prior to 2012. This externality together with the reduced sensitivity of Germany’s current account to relative prices argues for a reduction in imbalances by boosting Germany’s internal demand, i.e. by a reduction in its national savings. The tools to do this could include boosting public investment, lowering direct personal taxes, or raising the minimum wage more quickly relative to productivity and inflation.

[1] Sébastien Villemot, Bruno Ducoudré, Xavier Timbeau: “Taux de change d’équilibre et ampleur des désajustements internes à la zone euro“ [Equilibrium exchange rate and scale of internal misalignments in the euro zone], Revue de l’OFCE, 156 (2018).

Is France’s trade deficit entirely structural?

By Eric Heyer

The issue at the heart of the debate between those arguing that a lack of supply is behind the low level of activity in France over the last four years and those arguing that the problem is a lack of demand is the nature of the country’s trade deficit.

On the one hand, the French economy has a number of symptoms characteristic of an economy experiencing a shortfall in demand: strong disinflation, high unemployment, businesses declaring substantial spare capacity due mainly to a lack of demand, etc. But, on the other hand, the existence of a persistent deficit in the trade balance (Figure 1) casts doubt on the competitiveness of French firms and on their capacity to meet additional demand, which would thus express a problem with supply.


So, after more than ten years of trade surpluses, which represented over 2 GDP points in 1997, France’s trade balance turned negative in 2005. After widening gradually until 2010 when the deficit reached nearly 2 GDP points, the trend turned around. In 2013 (the latest available figure), the trade deficit still stood at 1 GDP point.

This observation is not however sufficient to dismiss all the arguments of the proponents of a demand shortage that France simply suffers from a supply problem. What is needed at a minimum is to analyze the nature of the deficit and try to separate its structural component from its cyclical component. The latter is the result of a difference in the economic cycle between France and its major trading partners. When a country’s situation is more favourable than that of its partners, that country will tend to run a deficit in its trade balance linked to domestic demand and thus to more buoyant imports. A trade deficit may thus arise regardless of how competitive the country’s domestic firms are.

One way to take this cyclical gap into account is to compare the gaps between an economy’s actual output and its potential output (the output gap). At the national level, a positive output gap (respectively negative) means that the economy is in a phase of expansion (respectively of contraction) of the cycle, which, other things being equal, should lead to a cyclical deterioration (or improvement) in its trade balance. In terms of the trading partners, when they are in a cyclical expansionary phase (positive output gap), this should lead to a cyclical improvement in the trade balance of the country in question.

Using data from the latest issue of the OECD’s Economic Outlook (eo96), we calculated an “aggregate” output gap for France’s partners by weighting the output gap of each partner by the weight of French exports to that country in France’s total exports.

This calculation, shown in Figure 2, highlights two points:

  1. The first is that, according to the OECD, France’s output gap has been negative since 2008, signalling the existence of room for the French economy to rebound.
  2. The second is that the economic situation of our trading partners is even worse. The cyclical gap, measured by the difference between the output gaps of France and of its partners, indicates a significant difference in favour of France.


It is then possible to assess the impact of the cyclical situation of the country and that of its main partners on the trade balance.

A simple estimate using Ordinary Least Squares over the period 1985-2013 shows a relationship of cointegration between these three variables (trade balance, output gap of France and output gap of its partners) for France. The signs obtained are consistent with what we would intuitively expect: when France is in an expansionary phase, its trade balance tends to worsen (coefficient of -0.943). In contrast, when rival countries are experiencing a boom, this makes for an improvement in France’s trade balance (coefficient of +0.876).

France’s structural trade balance since 1985 can then be calculated by subtracting the cyclical effect (national and competitors) from the observed trade balance.

Figure 3 shows this calculation. First, the fall in the euro in the late 1990s led to a structural improvement in France’s structural balance. The sharp deterioration in the trade balance between 2001 and 2007 would then be entirely structural: it would be explained in particular by China’s entry into the WTO, by the competitive disinflation policy adopted by Germany, and by the appreciation of the euro. Since the 2008 crisis, however, an increasingly substantial portion of the French trade deficit would be cyclical. So even if French growth were sluggish, the country’s economic difficulties were nonetheless less dramatic than in the case of some of its trading partners[1]. It is this relatively more favourable performance compared to its major trading partners that would have led to the rise of a trade deficit, part of which was cyclical. By 2013, the imbalances in the current account would be entirely cyclical in origin.


This result echoes the analysis provided by the French national accounting office on the factors driving growth over the last four years: the level of real GDP in the third quarter of 2014 was only 1.4% higher than in first quarter 2011. An analysis of the factors contributing to this performance is unambiguous: private demand (household and business) was down sharply (-1.6%), particularly household consumption, the traditional engine of economic growth. While there are more households today than four years ago, their total consumption was 0.6% below their 2011 level. However, while the French economy’s ability to deal with the global competitive framework is being questioned by the dominant discourse, foreign trade has in fact had a very positive impact in the last four years, with a boost from exports, which contributed a positive 2 GDP points to growth. In short, for four years the French economy has been driven mainly by exports, while it has been held back by private demand.

This analysis is of course based on an assessment of output gaps, whose measurement is tricky and subject to sharp revisions. In this respect, while there is an institutional consensus on the estimate that France has a negative output gap, there is also a broad range in the magnitudes of the room for a rebound, ranging in 2014 from 2.5 to 4 points, depending on the institution (IMF, OECD, European Commission, OFCE).

This diagnosis would be somewhat attenuated if an output gap were used for France that was more negative than the one calculated by the OECD: using the OFCE’s estimate for France (an output gap of -2.9 GDP points in 2013 instead of the OECD’s -1.4 points) and retaining the OECD measure for its partners, France’s more favourable relative performance compared to its major trading partners would now explain only half of its trade deficit[2]. Part of the deficit observed would therefore be explained by the competitiveness problems of French business (Figure 4).


In conclusion, as with any measurement of a structural variable, the evaluation of the structural trade balance is sensitive to the measure of the output gap. Nevertheless, it is clear from this brief analysis that:

  • If the French economy is considered to suffer mainly from a supply problem (output gap close to zero), whereas our partners, mainly European, face a shortfall in demand (negative output gap), then the deficit in our trade balance would essentially be cyclical.
  • However, if France, like its partners, is also experiencing a shortfall in demand, then only part of our deficit is cyclical, and the rest is related to a problem with the competitiveness of our companies.

This last point seems to us closer to the actual situation of the French economy. While French companies’ have undeniably lost some competitiveness, this should not be overestimated: the sluggishness that has characterized our economy for nearly four years is due not only to a lack of supply and the disappearance of the potential for growth – even if this is unfortunately likely to taper off – it is also due to a significant decline in demand.


[1] For example, Italy and Spain entered a second recession in third quarter 2014, leaving their GDP lower than its pre-crisis level by 9% and 6% respectively.

[2] We find a similar result when the previous version from the OECD (eo95) it used for France and all its partners.

France – the sick man of Europe?

by Mathieu Plane – Economist at OFCE (French Economic Observatory – Sciences Po)

The year 2014 was marked for France by the risk of European Commission sanctions for the failure of its budget to comply with Treaties; by the downgrade by Fitch of French government debt (following the one by S&P a year earlier); by the absence of any sign of a in the unemployment rate; by a rising deficit after four years of consecutive decline; and by the distinction of being the only country in Europe to run a significant current account deficit: economically, it seemed like the country’s worst year since the beginning of the crisis, in  2008. France did not of course go through the kind of recession it did in 2009, when the Eurozone experienced a record fall in GDP (-4.5% and -2.9% for the EMU and for France respectively). But for the first time since the subprime bubble burst, in 2014 French GDP grew more slowly (0.4%) than eurozone average (0.8%). The country’s weakening position is fuelling the view that France may be the new sick man of Europe, a victim of its leaders’ lax fiscal approach and its inability to reform. Is this really the case?

It is worth noting first that the French economic and social model proved its effectiveness during the crisis. Thanks to its system of social safety nets, to a combined  (consumers, business, government) debt level that is lower than the Eurozone average, while the household savings rate that is higher, to a low level of inequality, and to a relatively solid banking system, France weathered the crisis better than most of its European partners. Indeed, between early 2008 and late 2013, French GDP grew by 1.1%, while during that same period the Eurozone as a whole contracted by 2.6%; France also avoided the recession in 2012 and 2013 that most Eurozone countries experienced. Looking at Europe for the six years from 2008 to 2013, France’s economic performance was relatively close to that of Germany (2.7%), better than that of the UK (-1.3%) and well ahead of Spain (-7.2%) and Italy (-8.9%). Similarly, during this period investment in France contracted less than in the Eurozone as a whole (‑7.7% versus -17%), and unemployment increased less (+3 points versus +4.6). Finally, the French economy’s ability to stand up better to the crisis was not linked with a greater increase in public debt compared to the Eurozone average (+28 GDP points for both France and the Eurozone) or even the United Kingdom (+43 points).

Nevertheless, France has seen its position in the Eurozone deteriorate in 2014. This was marked not only by lower growth than its partners, but also by higher unemployment (the Eurozone rate has gradually fallen), an increase in public debt (which virtually stabilized in the Eurozone), a decline in investment (which improved slightly in the euro zone), an increase in its public deficit (while that of the Eurozone fell) and a substantial current account deficit (the euro zone is running a significant surplus). Why this divergence?

While France does have a problem with competitiveness, note that almost half of its current account deficit is cyclical due to more dynamic imports than its major trading partners, which generally have worse output gaps. Furthermore, until 2013, the country’s fiscal adjustment was focused more on the tax burden than on public spending. Conversely, the focus in 2014 was more on public spending. Given France’s position in the business cycle and its budget decisions, the fiscal multiplier in 2014 was higher than in previous years, so that fiscal consolidation imposed a heavy toll in terms of growth. In terms of competitiveness, French industry is caught in the middle of the Eurozone between, on the one hand, peripheral countries of the euro area, including Spain, which have entered into a spiral of wage deflation fuelled by mass unemployment, and the core countries, especially Germany, which are reluctant to give up their excessive trade surpluses through higher domestic demand and more inflation. Faced with the generalization of wage devaluations in the Eurozone, France had no choice but to respond with a policy to improve the competitiveness of its businesses by cutting labour costs. Thus, the CICE tax credit and the Pact of Responsibility represent a total transfer of 41 billion euros to the firm system, mainly financed by households. While the positive impact of these transfers will be felt over the medium-to-long term, the financing effort together with the country’s fiscal consolidation effort had an immediate adverse effect on purchasing power, which goes a long way in explaining the poor growth performance of 2014. Finally, 2014 also saw a steep fall in housing investment (-7%), the largest drop since the real estate crisis of the early 1990s (excluding 2009).

There are several reasons why France’s poor performance is not likely to be repeated in 2015: first, in order to halt the decline in construction, emergency measures were taken in August 2014 to free up housing investment, with the first effects to be felt in 2015. Second, the programmes enacted to improve business competitiveness will begin to take full effect from 2015: the CICE tax credit and the Responsibility Pact will slash business costs by 17 billion euros in 2015, up significantly from only 6.5 billion in 2014. Third, the slowdown in the fiscal consolidation programmes of our commercial partners and the introduction of a minimum wage in Germany will both help French exports. In addition, the lower exchange rate for the euro and falling oil prices are powerful levers for boosting the French economy in 2015, and together could amount to one extra point of growth. Given the ECB’s policy on quantitative easing, interest rates should also remain low for at several more quarters. Finally, although timid, the Juncker plan along with marginal changes in Europe’s fiscal rules will favour a pickup in investment. These factors will put some wind in the sails of French growth by helping to offset the negative impact of the reduction in public spending for 2015, so that the economy finally reaches a pace that will be sufficient to begin to reverse the unemployment curve and reduce the public deficit.

While France is not the sick man of Europe, it is nevertheless still very much dependent, like all euro zone countries, on Europe having strong macroeconomic levers. Up to now, these have had a negative impact on business, be it through overly restrictive fiscal policies or a monetary policy that has proved insufficiently expansionary in the light of other central banks’ action. In an integrated currency zone, deflation cannot be fought on a national basis. The choice of a European policy mix that is more geared towards growth and inflation is a first since the start of the sovereign debt crisis. Boosted by lower oil prices, let us hope that these levers will prove strong enough to halt the depressive spiral that the Eurozone has been going through since the onset of the crisis. The recovery will be European, before being French, or there won’t be one.


Decline of the euro and competitive disinflation: who’s going to gain the most?

By Bruno Ducoudré and Eric Heyer

For nearly two years, between mid-2012 and mid-2014, the euro appreciated against the world’s major currencies. Having reached a level of USD 1.39 in May 2014, the euro had increased in value since July 2012 by more than 12% against the dollar. During the same period, the euro appreciated by 44% against the yen and more than 3% against the pound sterling.

Since May 2014, this trend has reversed: after rising by nearly 10% between mid-2012 and mid-2014, the real effective exchange rate for the euro, which weights the different exchange rates based on the structure of euro zone trade, has depreciated by 5.2% over the last six months (Figure 1). In fact, within a few months, the euro has lost nearly 10% against the dollar, more than 3% against the yen and 4% against the British pound. The weakening against the pound sterling actually began in August 2013, and has reached over 9% today. We expect the euro to continue to depreciate up to the beginning of 2015, with the single currency’s exchange rate falling to 1.20 dollars in the second quarter of 2015.


For many business people and economics experts, this decline in the euro represents an opportunity to escape the deflation trap currently threatening the euro zone. Faced with sluggish growth in the zone and an inflation rate that is falling dangerously low, the announcement by the European Central Bank of a quantitative easing programme indicates its willingness to devalue the euro against other currencies in order to support Europe’s growth and meet its inflation target.[1] The French government also expects a great deal from the euro’s depreciation.[2] The Treasury Department believes[3] that a 10% decrease in the effective exchange rate of the euro (against all currencies) would increase our GDP in the first year by 0.6 percentage point, creating 30,000 jobs, reducing the public deficit by 0.2 GDP point and pushing up consumer prices by 0.5%.

The revival of short-term growth in the euro zone through a depreciation of the euro’s effective exchange rate would also limit the non-cooperative policy of competitive disinflation being implemented in southern Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal). While European countries trade mostly with each other and compete sharply for export markets, the effort to improve competitiveness through a disinflation policy is bound to fail in the euro zone if all the members adopt the same strategy. This is, however, the strategy chosen by the European Commission, i.e. by pushing the countries in crisis to reform their labour markets and cut labour costs. In this light, the depreciation of the euro is needed to support structural reform in Europe and support demand [4] even as fiscal austerity policies are further undermining it.

In a recent study, we attempted to assess the effects expected from the depreciation of the euro. We are interested not in the reasons for the variations in the euro (differential performance, behaviour of central banks) but in its macroeconomic implications (in particular its impact on GDP, prices and employment). To assess the sensitivity of exports to price competitiveness for six major OECD countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, United States, United Kingdom), we made estimates using new foreign trade equations that distinguish, within the euro zone, intra-zone trade and extra-zone trade. The elasticities obtained are consistent with the existing literature on this subject. It is necessary to make a joint estimation of the equations for export volumes and import prices: this provides a feedback loop in partial equilibrium for a change in the effective exchange rate on import volumes and export volumes. Taking into account the marginal behaviour of importers and exporters tends to limit the effect of a change in the effective exchange rate on the volumes of imports and exports when these have little market power. Simulations show that, in the euro zone, Spain would have the most to gain from a depreciation in the euro’s exchange rate against other currencies, but also from a policy of competitive disinflation (case where Spain’s export prices grow more slowly than the export prices of its euro zone rivals) (Table 1).



For the French economy, we also carried out a more detailed analysis using the OFCE’s macroeconomic model emod.fr, with the goal of comparing our results with those obtained by the French DG Treasury with the Mésange model.

Our results show that a 10% depreciation of the euro against all currencies leads to a gain in price competitiveness for export to France vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The other euro zone countries experience the same gain in competitiveness across all export markets. In this case, the effect on activity would be +0.2% the first year, and +0.5% after three years. Excluding the effect due to the change in price competitiveness, the increased demand resulting from the pick-up in activity among our European partners would be broadly offset by lower demand addressed to France from the rest of the world. On the labour market, the depreciation would create 20,000 jobs in the first year, and 77,000 jobs after three years. The public deficit would improve by 0.3 GDP point in three years (Table 2).


Finally, we simulated the effect of a 10% increase in the prices of our competitors in the euro zone on the whole of France’s export markets. This 10% improvement in price competitiveness vis-à-vis the other euro zone countries would have a positive effect on activity via an increase in exports, investment and employment (Table 3). The impact on activity would be +0.4% in the first year and +0.9% after three years. It would be zero after 10 years. Nearly 130,000 jobs would be created in a period of 3 years and the government deficit would improve by 0.5 GDP point over this period.


[1] See C. Blot and F. Labondance, “Why a negative interest rate?”, Blog de l’OFCE, 23 June 2014.

[2] See the speech by Prime Minister F. Hollande on 5 February 2013 to the European Parliament.

[3] Economic and Social Report of France’s 2014 draft budget bill.

[4] See the speech by M. Draghi “Unemployment in the euro area”, Jackson Hole, 22 August 2014.

Changes in taxation in Europe from 2000 to 2012: A few analytical points

By Céline Antonin, Félix de Liège and Vincent Touzé

There is great diversity to Europe’s tax systems, reflecting the choices of sovereign States with differentiated destinies. Since the Treaty of Rome, the Member States have steadily refused to give up national authority over taxation, with the exception of a minimum level of coordination on value-added tax (VAT). Europe now faces a real risk of a rise in non-cooperative tax strategies, with each country seeking to improve its economic performance at the expense of the others. This kind of aggressive strategy is being fuelled by two factors: on the one hand, a drive for competitiveness (fiscal devaluation), aimed at reducing the tax burden on businesses so as to improve price competitiveness; and on the other, a drive for fiscal advantage, aimed at luring the rarest factors of production to the national territory. On a macroeconomic level, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between these two factors. However, one way of understanding how the European states have improved their position may be to look at how the tax burden on business has evolved in comparison with the burden on households.

OFCE Note no. 44 describes changes in the compulsory tax burden (TPO) in Europe. It is based on statistics from Tendances de la fiscalité, which is published jointly by Eurostat and the European Commission’s Taxation and Customs Union Directorate. These statistics have the advantage of providing harmonized data on tax rates, with a breakdown of the tax base (capital, labour, consumption) and the type of paying agent (household, business, individual entrepreneur). We study the period 2000-2012: it is of course always difficult to separate trends in taxation from cyclical adjustments, especially as budget constraints tighten. Nevertheless, the 2000-2012 period should be sufficiently long to reveal changes of a structural nature.

Based on these data, we first highlight contrasting trends in the tax burden in the European Union, which can be broken down into four phases: two phases of rises (between 2004 and 2006 and since 2010) and two phases of reductions (before 2004 and from 2006 to 2010), which is linked in particular with cyclical factors. In addition to this common dynamic, we can see non-convergent adjustments made by the European countries in the taxation of households and the taxation of business (see graph). We then focus on possible tax substitutions between payroll taxes and consumption, and between payroll taxes and employee contributions.

Over the period 2000-2012, it is difficult to talk about tax competition at a global level, even though there was a slight decrease in the average tax burden within the European Union and very specific moves in this direction by certain countries. While some countries have definitely reduced the tax burden on business (UK, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, etc.), others have increased it (Belgium, France, Italy, etc.). However, in the long-term, it would seem difficult to maintain such a high level of tax diversity. At a time when European integration is being intensified, greater tax harmonization seems more necessary than ever.


Competitiveness: danger zone!

By Céline Antonin, Christophe Blot, Sabine Le Bayon and Catherine Mathieu

The crisis affecting the euro zone is the result of macroeconomic and financial imbalances that developed during the 2000s. The European economies that have provoked doubt about the sustainability of their public finances (Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy [1]) are those that ran up the highest current account deficits before the crisis and that saw sharp deteriorations in competitiveness between 2000 and 2007. Over that same period Germany gained competitiveness and built up growing surpluses, to such an extent that it has become a model to be emulated across the euro zone, and especially in the countries of southern Europe. Unit labor costs actually fell in Germany starting in 2003, at a time when moderate wage agreements were being agreed between trade unions and employers and the coalition government led by Gerhard Schröder was implementing a comprehensive programme of structural reform. This programme was designed to make the labour market [2] more flexible and reform the financing of social protection but also to restore competitiveness. The concept of competitiveness is nevertheless complex and reflects a number of factors (integration into the international division of production processes, development of a manufacturing network that boosts network effects and innovation, etc.), which also play an important role.

In addition, as is highlighted in a recent analysis by Eric Heyer, Germany’s structural reforms were accompanied by a broadly expansionary fiscal policy. Today, the incentive to improve competitiveness, strengthened by the implementation of improved monitoring of macroeconomic imbalances (see here), is part of a context marked by continued fiscal adjustment and high levels of unemployment. In these conditions, the implementation of structural reforms coupled with a hunt for gains in competitiveness could plunge the entire euro zone into a deflationary situation. In fact, Spain and Greece have already been experiencing deflation, and it is threatening other southern Europe countries, as we show in our latest forecast. This is mainly the result of the deep recession hitting these countries. But the process is also being directly fueled by reductions in public sector wages, as well as in the minimum wage (in the case of Greece). Moreover, some countries have cut unemployment benefits (Greece, Spain, Portugal) and simplified redundancy procedures (Italy, Greece, Portugal). Reducing job protection and simplifying dismissal procedures increases the likelihood of being unemployed. In a context of under-employment and sluggish demand, the result is further downward pressure on wages, thereby increasing the deflationary risks. Furthermore, there has also been an emphasis on decentralizing the wage bargaining process so that they are more in tune with business realities. This is leading to a loss of bargaining power on the part of trade unions and employees, which in turn is likely to strengthen downward pressure on real wages.

The euro zone countries are pursuing a non-cooperative strategy that is generating gains in market share mainly at the expense of other European trading partners. Thus since 2008 or 2009 Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have improved their competitiveness relative to the other industrialized countries (see graph). The continuation of this strategy of reducing labor costs could plunge the euro zone into a deflationary spiral, as the countries losing market share seek in turn to regain competitiveness by reducing their own labour costs. Indeed, this non-cooperative strategy, initiated by Germany in the 2000s, has already contributed to the crisis in the euro zone (see the box on p.52 of the ILO report published in 2012). It is of course futile to hope that the continuation of this strategy will provide a solution to the current crisis. On the contrary, new problems will arise, since deflation [3] will make the process of reducing both public and private debt more expensive, since debt expressed in real terms will rise as prices fall: this will keep the euro zone in a state of recession.

[1] The Irish case is somewhat distinct, as the current account deficit seen in 2007 was due not to trade, but a shortfall in income.

[2] These reforms are examined in detail in a report by the Conseil d’analyse économique (no. 102). They are summarized in a special study La quête de la compétitivité ouvre la voie de la déflation (“The quest for competitiveness opens the door to deflation”).

[3] For a more comprehensive view of the dynamics of debt-driven deflation, see here.



20 billion euros in reductions on employer payroll taxes on low-wages. But will it create jobs?

By Eric Heyer and Mathieu Plane

Every year the State spends nearly 1 percentage point of GDP, i.e. 20 billion euros, on general reductions in employer payroll taxes on low wages. It is thus legitimate to ask whether a programme like this is effective. A large number of empirical studies have been conducted to try to assess the impact of this measure on employment, and have concluded that it creates between 400,000 and 800,000 jobs.

As these estimates are performed using sector models, they do not take into account all the effects resulting from a policy of reduced social contributions on low wages, and in particular the impact of macroeconomic feedback, i.e. the effect of income gains, competitiveness gains and the financing of the measure.

In a recent study published in the Revue de l’OFCE (Varia, no. 126, 2012), we have attempted to supplement these evaluations by taking into account all the impacts resulting from a policy of reducing contributions on low wages. To do this, we performed a simulation of this measure using the OFCE’s macro-econometric model, emod.fr.

We were able to break down the various impacts expected from these reductions on employment costs into two basic categories:

  1. An overall “substitution effect”, which breaks down into a macroeconomic capital-labour substitution, to which is added what can be called an “assessment effect” linked to the targeting of the measure at low wages;
  2. A “volume effect”, which can be broken down between rising domestic demand due to lower prices and higher payroll, competitiveness gains due to improved market share internally and externally, and the negative effect of the measure’s financing, whether that involves raising the tax burden (prélèvements obligatoires) or cutting public spending.

Based on our assessment, summarized in Table 1, the exemptions from employer social contributions on low wages lead to creating 50,000 jobs in the first year and about 500,000 at the end of five years. Of the 503,000 jobs expected within five years, 337,000 would be due to the overall substitution effect, with 107,000 linked to the macroeconomic capital-labour substitution and 230,000 to the “assessment effect” linked to the sharp reduction in labour costs on low wages. In addition, 82,000 jobs are generated by the addition to household income and 84,000 by competitiveness gains and the positive contribution of foreign trade to the change in GDP. On the other hand, the “volume effect” on employment becomes negative if the measure is financed ex post: increasing a representative mix of the fiscal structure reduces the overall impact of the measure by 176,000 jobs at 5 years; reducing a representative mix of the structure of public spending reduces employment by 250,000 at 5 years.

Some of the jobs created come from competitiveness gains related to taking market share from our trading partners due to lower prices of production following the reduction in labour costs. This price-competitiveness mechanism works only if, first, firms pass on the reductions in social contributions in their prices of production, and second, our trading partners are willing to lose market share without a fight. We therefore simulated a polar opposite case in which it is assumed that our trading partners respond to this type of policy by enacting similar measures, which would negate our external gains.

While this does not modify the impact on employment related to the “substitution effect”, this assumption does change the “volume effect” of the measure, eliminating 84,000 jobs from gains in market share and increasing the negative effect of ex post financing due to the measure’s multiplier effect on weaker activities. In total, in the scenario in which the measure is funded ex post and does not allow gains in competitiveness, the exemptions on employer social security contributions on low wages would create between 69,000 and 176,000 jobs within five years, depending on how it is financed (Table 2). This result puts the initial figure of 500,000 jobs into perspective.

The tax credit to encourage competitiveness and jobs – what impact?

By Mathieu Plane

Following the submission to the Prime Minister of the Gallois Report on the pact for encouraging the competitiveness of French industry, the government decided to establish the tax credit to encourage competitiveness and jobs (“the CICE”). Based on the rising trade deficit observed over the course of the last decade, the sharp deterioration in business margins since the onset of the crisis and growing unemployment, the government intends to use the CICE to restore the competitiveness of French business and to boost employment. According to our assessment, which was drawn up using the e-mod.fr model as described in an article in the Revue de l’OFCE (issue 126-2012), within five years the CICE should help to create about 150,000 jobs, bringing the unemployment rate down by 0.6 point and generating additional growth of 0.1 GDP point by 2018.

The CICE, which is open to all companies that are assessed on their actual earnings and are subject to corporation tax or income tax, will amount to 6% of the total wage bill for wages below 2.5 times the minimum wage (SMIC), excluding employer contributions. It will come into force gradually, with a rate of 4% in 2013. The CICE’s impact on corporate cash flow will be felt with a lag of one year from the base year, meaning that the CICE will give rise to a tax credit on corporate profits from 2014. On the other hand, some companies could benefit in 2013 from an advance on the CICE expected for 2014. The CICE should represent about 10 billion euros for the 2013 fiscal year, 15 billion in 2014 and 20 billion from 2015. As for the financing of the CICE, half will come from additional savings on public spending (10 billion), the details of which have not been spelled out, and half from tax revenue, i.e. an increase in the standard and intermediate VAT rate from 1 January 2014 (6.4 billion) and stronger environmental taxation.

This reform is similar in part to a fiscal devaluation and in some respects bears similarities to the mechanisms of the “quasi-social VAT” (see Heyer, Plane, Timbeau [2012], “Economic impact of the quasi-social VAT” [in French]) that was set up by the Fillon government but eliminated with the change of the parliamentary majority as part of the second supplementary budget bill in July 2012.

According to our calculations using 2010 DADS data, the CICE would lower average labour costs by 2.6% in the market sector. The sectors where labour costs would be most affected by the measure are construction (-3.0%), industry (-2.8%) and market services (-2.4%). The ultimate sectoral impact of the measure depends both on the reduction in labour costs and on the weight of wages in value added in a given sector. Overall, the CICE would represent 1.8% of the value added of industrial enterprises, 1.9% of the value added in construction and 1.3% in market services. In total, the CICE would represent 1.4% of the value added in market sector companies. According to our calculations, the total value of the CICE would be 20 billion euros: 4.4 billion in industry, 2.2 billion in construction and 13.4 billion for market services. Industry would therefore recover 22% of the total spending, i.e. more than its share of value added, which is only 17%. While this measure is intended to revive French industry, this sector would nevertheless not be the primary beneficiary of the measure in absolute value, but, along with the construction sector, has the best exposure relatively speaking due to its wage structure. Furthermore, industry can benefit from knock-on effects related to reductions in the prices of inputs generated by the lowering of production costs in other sectors.

The expected effects of the CICE on growth and employment differ in the short and long term (see graphic). By giving rights in 2014 based on the 2013 fiscal year, the CICE will have positive effects in 2013, especially as the tax hikes and public spending cuts will not take effect until 2014. The result will be a positive impact on growth in 2013 (0.2%), although it will take longer to affect employment (+23,000 in 2013) due to the time it takes employment to adjust to activity and the gradual ramping-up of the measure.

On the other hand, the impact of the CICE will be slightly recessive from 2014 to 2016, as the loss in household purchasing power linked to higher taxes and the cuts in public spending (household consumption and public demand will contribute -0.2 GDP point in 2014 and then -0.4 point in 2015 and 2016) will prevail over lower prices and the recovery of business margins. Apart from the first year, the CICE’s positive impact on growth related to income transfers will be slow to be seen, as gains in market share related to lower prices and to higher business margins are dependent on a medium / long-term supply-side mechanism, with demand-side impacts being felt more rapidly.

The implementation of the CICE will gradually generate gains in market share that will make a positive contribution to activity by improving the foreign trade balance (0.4 GDP point in 2015 and 2016), whether through increased exports or reduced imports. From 2017, the external balance will not contribute as much to the economy (0.3 GDP point) due to the improved purchasing power of households, resulting in slowing the reduction in imports. Despite the higher margins and the improved profitability of capital, productive investment will fall off slightly due to the substitution effect between labour and capital and the negative accelerator effect related to the fall in demand.

With the decline in the cost of labour relative to the cost of capital, the substitution of labour for capital will gradually boost employment to the detriment of investment, which will lead to job-rich GDP improvements and to lower gains in productivity. This dynamic will result in steady gains in employment despite the slight fall-off in activity between 2014 and 2016. Due to the rise in employment and the fall in unemployment, but also to possible wage compensation measures in companies arising from the greater fiscal pressure on households, wages will regain part of their lost purchasing power based on an increase in real pay. This catch-up in purchasing power will help to generate growth, but will limit the impact on employment and productivity gains.

Is nationalization a trap or a tool of industrial policy?

By Jean-Luc Gaffard

The closure of the Florange blast furnaces in the Moselle region by ArcelorMittal and the French government’s hunt for a buyer led it to temporarily consider nationalizing the site, that is, not only the production of crude steel, but also the cold forming line. The threat of nationalization was clearly wielded with a view to forcing the hand of the Mittal group so that it would sell the operations to another firm. If a nationalisation like this had been carried out, it would have been a penalty-nationalization, i.e. a sanction of behaviour by the Mittal group deemed contrary to the public interest. Apart from this unusual feature, it would have also raised issues about competition.

The project around the Mittal site is reminiscent in some ways of the nationalization of Renault in 1945. It would be hard to argue, however, that any reproaches would be along the same lines. There would clearly be no question of the nationalized site being made a showcase for a social policy designed to spur the country’s growth. The goal was less ambitious. It involved neither more nor less than a transfer of ownership from one private group to another. This would, of course, have been a first in the use of the weapon of nationalization. Any comparison with the French government’s support for Alstom in 2004 doesn’t hold: in this latter case, the point was to save a company that might go bankrupt as a result of risky acquisitions, and not simply to replace it with another company. Moreover, the problem was confined to the company in question, with no global or even sectoral implications. Comparisons with the support of the Obama administration for the automotive industry in 2009 are also out of place, as that involved saving a company that was being forced into bankruptcy in an industry generally considered strategic.

The reality in the case of Florange was and remains that no potential buyer thought they would be able to keep the blast furnaces operating in an environment marked by falling demand for steel, in particular in the wake of the crisis in the automobile industry. That is why, whatever happened, the buyer would demand to keep the rolling mill too. This requirement would be in its best interest: the blast furnaces could not be taken over except on the condition that they could supply the activity immediately downstream on the same site. If this condition had been met, it would undoubtedly have posed a problem for the Mittal group, as it currently provides the steel for the mill in Florange from its Dunkirk site, so the new situation would have caused it difficulties, including in terms of jobs. In other words, a temporary nationalization with a view to a transfer of ownership would interfere with competition between private entities. It is far from clear that this was in line with the general interest.

The occasionally argued thesis that Mittal’s strategy was the act of managers who were merely obeying the shareholders and who were advocates of an economy without factories or machines does not really hold water in light of the nature of the firm’s activity and the degree of integration of the different production sites. One could, however, make the hypothesis that Mittal’s strategy involving the closure of the blast furnaces in Florange amounted to a plan to ration supply that was designed to prevent a collapse of steel prices and boost already low margins. This hypothesis might be credible if the demand for steel depended primarily on its price, whereas it is obvious that the decline observed is the result of the global crisis and particularly the slump in sales in the automotive and construction industries. In other words, a fall in steel prices today would not lead to higher demand and ensure the continued operation of all the blast furnaces. It is much more plausible to assume that, in the current macroeconomic environment, the transfer of ownership that was considered would simply have resulted in changing market shares rather than increasing the market’s size.

In fact, there could only be real doubt about both the legitimacy and the capacity of the public authorities to arrange the most appropriate configuration for the market, or even the breakdown of the jobs to be saved or destroyed. Furthermore, if a decision to nationalize had indeed been taken in a situation like this, any determination of fair compensation would have proven difficult and prone to litigation.

In short, the nationalization under consideration could hardly have been an effective tool of industrial policy. It is not for the public authorities to arbitrate between private interests to determine who owns what, including when certain sites are to be closed. This type of arbitration is the responsibility of the competition authorities. Industrial policy, in turn, should interfere as little as possible with the division of market shares between the various competitors. At most it could ensure the survival of companies whose activity is considered strategic and who are going through a difficult period due to the global situation or to industrial choices that have proved erroneous or simply more expensive than expected.

In this situation, it is not surprising that the government did not follow up with the nationalization project and instead supported the compromise of simply requiring that Mittal undertakes to make investments to modernize the site and to maintain the blast furnaces in running order with a view to equipping them with highly efficient technology in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, leading to a gain in competitiveness, as part of the European Ultra-Low Carbon Dioxide Steelmaking project (Ulcos).

The nationalization under consideration was indeed a trap in every sense of the word. The political and media battle about the fate of the Florange site revealed, in fact, an error in the government’s analysis. The difficulties being experienced by the French steel industry result from a lack of demand, which is in turn the result of a policy choice of generalized austerity. Trying to resolve this macroeconomic problem with a microeconomic solution was, at a minimum, risky and shows the inconsistency of the short-term and medium-term decisions being taken on economic policy.



The dilemma of competitiveness

By Jean-Luc Gaffard

The competitiveness of a country is a complex subject. Some people rebel against the very concept on the grounds that it can’t be applied to a nation and is only meaningful for companies. It is true that if a company gains market share, this necessarily comes at the expense of a competitor. And it is no less true that when one country increases its exports to another, then the extra income earned by the first will, in part, fuel demand that then benefits the second. The benefits of one become a condition of benefits for the other. This back-and-forth justifies international trade, whose aim is a better use of resources by everyone, with the benefits being shared by all, on an equitable basis. This story makes sense. And it does indeed indicate that the competitiveness of a nation is not comparable to that of a business. 
However, there are global imbalances that result in longer-term surpluses or deficits that reflect differences in the competitiveness of the companies in the countries in question. These require appropriate policy responses to meet the challenge of making possible what some have called the return journey, that is to say, to set in motion the mechanisms through which the income earned by one country is converted into demand on the other.

This is the difficulty facing France today. The country has been building up trade deficits since 2002: it is facing a problem with the competitiveness of its companies on global markets, and is no longer able to use the exchange rate instrument. The persistent trade deficit is clearly of even greater concern than the public deficit, and its absorption should be a priority. This is why calls have been mounting for a competitiveness shock, that is to say, economic policy measures that are able to make companies more competitive by reducing their production costs.
That said, a competitiveness shock is not easy to implement. Of course, in a developed economy, business competitiveness primarily means non-cost competitiveness that is based on a company’s ability to occupy a technological or market niche. But regaining this type of competitiveness requires investment and time. Furthermore, non-cost competitiveness is not independent of immediate price competitiveness. Quickly rebuilding business margins is a necessary, though probably not sufficient condition for a return to non-cost competitiveness. This requirement is all the more stringent today as obtaining captive markets through differentiation can often be very costly in terms of R&D and exploring customer prospects.
The difficulty facing the French economy is that the restoration of margins needed may come at the expense of household purchasing power and thus of domestic demand. Competitiveness gains could remain a dead letter if final demand were to collapse. Moreover, there is nothing to say that restoring margins per se will result in a pick-up in investment if companies face just such a slowdown in demand, if not a fall.

It seems that what is needed is to grasp both ends of the chain: short-term price competitiveness and medium-term non-price competitiveness. Quickly restoring business margins requires transferring the financing of social protection to taxes on households. Enabling companies to re-establish their price competitiveness demands further improvements in the level of infrastructure and support for the establishment of productive ecosystems that combine good local relationships and the internationalization of production processes. In both cases, this involves the question of what fiscal and budget strategy should be implemented.

The difficulty comes from the prioritization of objectives. If priority is given to immediately restoring the public accounts, then adding another burden due to the transfer of charges onto the tax grabs already taken from households will definitely run the risk of a collapse in demand. This means either admitting that such a transfer is really possible only in conditions of relatively strong growth and thus postponing it, or making the improvement of the trade deficit a priority over the public accounts and thus not tying our hands with a budget target that is too tough.
The government has decided to stay the course of public deficit reduction, and has in fact postponed the competitiveness shock by proposing, after a year or more, business tax credits that are to be offset by hikes in the VAT rate in particular. The underlying rationale is clear. The search for a balanced budget is supposed to guarantee a return to growth, but care is being taken about further weighing down demand by adding to the tax increases already enacted to meet the target of a 3% government deficit by 2013. The prevailing idea is that, aided by a wise budget, a pick-up in activity will take place within two years in line with the supposedly conventional economic cycle, which has the additional advantage of coinciding with the electoral cycle.
The path being chosen is narrow and, quite frankly, dangerous. Fiscal austerity measures are still subjecting domestic demand to heavy pressure. The restoration of business margins has been put off. Would it not be better to stagger the recovery of the public accounts more and ensure more immediate gains in competitiveness by using the appropriate fiscal tools?

The result to be expected from either of these strategies is of course highly dependent on the choices being made at the European level. Persevering on the path of widespread austerity will mean nothing good will happen for anyone.