Why can’t Greece get out of debt?

By Sébastien Villemot

Between 2007 and 2015, Greece’s public debt rose from 103% to 179% [1] 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.


What explains this failure? How much have the various factors involved (public deficit, austerity, deflation, restructuring, bank recapitalization, etc.) contributed to changes in the debt? To provide some answers, we conducted an accounting breakdown of the changes in the debt ratio: the result is given in the graph below for the period 2007-2015.



Several phases, which correspond to various developments in the Greek crisis, are clearly identifiable on the chart.

In 2007, prior to the financial storm, the GDP-to-debt ratio was stable: the negative effect of the budget deficit (including interest), which increases the ratio’s numerator, was offset by the positive impact of growth and inflation, which increase the denominator. So the situation was stable, at least temporarily, even though the debt level was already high (103% of GDP, which also explains the significant interest burden).

This stability was upset with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009: growth disappeared and even entered negative territory, while the primary deficit was rising, partly due to the “automatic stabilizers”, and by 2009 came to 10 percentage points of GDP.

Given the intensity of the fiscal crisis, an initial adjustment plan was implemented in 2010. As the austerity measures began to bite, the primary deficit began to fall (to almost zero in 2012, excluding extraordinary expenses). But austerity also resulted in intensifying the recession: in 2011, growth (very negative) contributed nearly 15 GDP points to the increase in debt. Austerity also led to reducing inflation, which dropped to almost zero, and which is therefore no longer playing its natural role of cushioning debt. Meanwhile, the interest burden remained high (rising to 7.2 GDP points in 2011).

It should be recalled that the accounting breakdown presented here tends to underestimate the negative impact of growth and to overestimate the impact of the budget deficit. Indeed, a recession generates a cyclical deficit, through the automatic stabilizers, and therefore indirectly contributes to debt through the channel of the budget balance. However, to identify the structural and cyclical components of the budget deficit, an estimate of potential growth is needed. In the Greek case, given the depth of the crisis, this exercise is quite challenging, and the few estimates available diverge considerably; for this reason, we preferred to stick to a purely accounting approach.

2012 was a year for big manoeuvres, with two successive debt restructurings in March and December. On paper, there was a substantial cancellation of debt (measured in terms of the stock-flow adjustment): almost 60 GDP points. But what should have been a significant reduction was largely offset by opposing forces. The recession remained exceptionally intense and accounted for 13.5 GDP points of the increase in debt. Above all, the main negative effect came from bank recapitalizations, which were necessitated by the writing off of public debt securities, which were largely held by domestic banks. In accounting terms, these recapitalisations take two forms: grants to banks (recorded as extraordinary expenses) or purchases of newly issued shares (recorded as purchases of financial assets) [2], which is why these two categories are grouped on the graphic. The category of purchases of financial assets also recognizes the establishment of a financial cushion to finance future bank recapitalizations [3].

In 2013, the debt-to-GDP ratio once again rose sharply, even though the primary balance (excluding exceptional expenses) showed a surplus. Bank recapitalizations (19 billion euros) were a heavy burden and were only partially covered by the sale of financial assets. The recession, although less intense, and deflation, now well established, made the picture even gloomier.

In 2014 and 2015, the situation improved, but without leading to any decline in the debt-to-GDP ratio, even though the primary deficit excluding exceptional spending was almost zero. Deflation persisted, while growth failed to restart (the 2014 upturn was moderate and short-lived), and the banks had to be recapitalized again in 2015 (for 5 billion euros). The interest burden remained high, despite the decision of the European creditors to lower rates on the loans from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF): several years would be needed before this shows up in the effective interest burden. Only the sales of financial assets made it possible to hold down the increase in debt, which is clearly not sustainable in the long run since there is a limited stock of these assets.

The table below shows the cumulative contribution of each factor for the period as a whole, and for the sub-period during which Greece was under programme (2010-2015).


The two main contributors to the increase in debt are growth (negative) and the cost of interest. In other words, the total increase in debt is due primarily to a “snowball effect”, which means the automatic increase due to the differential between the real interest rate and growth (the infamous “r-g”). The debt forgiveness in 2012 was not even sufficient to offset the snowball effect accumulated over the period. The bank recapitalizations that became necessary due in particular to the cancellation of debt were a heavy burden. The primary deficit, which is under the more direct control of the Greek government, comes only in 4th position from 2007 to 2015 (and doesn’t contribute much at all over the period 2010-2015).

It is therefore clear that the sharp rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio since 2007 (and especially since 2010) was not primarily the result of the Greek government’s fiscal irresponsibility, but resulted instead from an erroneous consolidation strategy that was based on a logic of accounting austerity and not on coherent macroeconomic reasoning. An upturn in growth and inflation will be necessary to achieve any substantial debt reduction. But the new austerity measures set out in the third adjustment plan could cause a return to recession, while the constraints of price competitiveness within the euro zone make it impossible to foresee any renewal of inflation. A significant reduction of debt that is not conditional on a new destructive phase of austerity would allow a fresh start; in a previous study[4], we showed that a restructuring that cut Greece’s debt to 100% of its GDP would correspond to a sustainable scenario. However, Europe’s member states, which are now Greece’s main creditors, are currently rejecting such a scenario. The path to reducing Greek debt now looks more uncertain than ever…

[1]  The data for 2015 are not yet fully available. The figures quoted for this year are projections by the European Commission published on 4 February 2016.

[2]  These holdings in bank capital are recorded here at their purchase value. Any subsequent deterioration in these holdings is not reflected in the chart, because this would not lead to a further increase in the gross debt (although it would increase the net debt).

[3]  In 2012, Greece bought 41 billion euros worth of EFSF bonds. Of this total, 6.5 billion were immediately given to the Bank of Piraeus, while 24 billion were lent to 4 big banks (which benefited from partial cancellation of their debt in 2013 against equity participations by the Greek State for a lesser value). The remaining 10 billion were returned unused by Greece to the EFSF in 2015, following the agreement of the Eurogroup on 22 February.

[4] See Céline Antonin, Raul Sampognaro, Xavier Timbeau and Sébastien Villemot, 2015, “La Grèce sur la corde raide” [Greece on the tightrope], Revue de l’OFCE, no. 138.


From austerity to stagnation

By Xavier Timbeau

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).


It is often argued that the state of euro zone public finances left no choice. In particular, market pressure was so great that certain countries, like Greece for example, were concerned that they would lose access to private financing of their public debt. The amounts involved and the state of the primary deficit are advanced to justify this brutal strategy and convince both the markets and the European partners. However, the sovereign debt crisis, and hence market pressure, ended when the European Central Bank announced that no country would leave the euro and set up an instrument, Outright Monetary Transactions, which makes it possible under certain conditions to buy back public debt securities of euro zone countries and therefore to intervene to counter the distrust of the markets (see an analysis here). From that point on, what matters is the sustainability of the public debt in the medium term rather than demonstrating that in an emergency the populace can be compelled to accept just any old policy. Sustainability does however require an adjustment policy that is ongoing (because the deficits are high) and moderate (because fiscal policy has a major impact on activity). By choosing the difficult path of austerity, we paid a high price for the institutional incoherence of the euro zone, which was exposed by the crisis. In the 2014 iAGS, we point out costs due to austerity that go beyond the loss of activity. On the one hand, inequality is increasing, and “anchored poverty”, i.e. as measured from the median incomes of 2008, is increasing dramatically in most countries affected by the recession. The high level of unemployment is leading to wage deflation in some countries (Spain, Portugal and Greece). This wage deflation will result in gains in cost competitiveness but, in return, will lead the countries’ partners to also take the path of wage deflation or fiscal devaluation. Ultimately, the adjustment of effective exchange rates either will not take place or will occur at such a slow pace that the effects of deflation will wind up dominant, especially as the appreciation of the euro will ruin the hopes of boosting competitiveness relative to the rest of the world. The main effect of wage deflation will be a greater real burden (i.e. relative to income) of private and public debt. This will mean a return to centre stage of massive public and private defaults, as well as the risk of the euro zone’s collapse. It is possible nevertheless to escape the trap of deflation. Possible methods are explored and calculated in the 2014 iAGS. By reducing sovereign spreads, the countries in crisis can be given significant maneuvering room. The levers for this include the continuation of the ECB’s efforts, but also a credible commitment by the Member states to stabilizing their public finances. Public investment has been cut by more than 2 points of potential GDP since 2007. Re-investing in the future is a necessity, especially as infrastructure that is not maintained and is allowed to collapse will be extremely expensive to rebuild. But it is also a way to stimulate activity without compromising fiscal discipline, since the latter must be assessed by trends not in the gross debt but in the net debt. Finally, the minimum wage should be used as an instrument of coordination. Our simulations show that there is a way to curb deflationary trends and reduce current account imbalances if surplus countries would increase their minimum wage faster in real terms than their productivity while deficit countries would increase their minimum wage slower than their productivity. Such a rule, which would respect both national practices in wage bargaining as well as productivity levels and the specific features of labour markets, would lead to gradually reducing macroeconomic imbalances in the euro zone.


The euro zone in crisis

By Catherine Mathieu and Henri Sterdyniak

The 9th EUROFRAME Conference [1], which was held in Kiel on 8 June 2012, focused on economic policy issues in the European Union. The topic was “The euro zone in crisis: Challenges for monetary and fiscal policies”. Issue 127 of the “Débats et Politiques” collection of the OFCE Revue has published revised versions of twelve papers presented in the Conference[2], gathered in five themes: exchange rate imbalances, indicators of the debt crisis, budget rules, banking and financial issues, and strategies for resolving the crisis.

The analysis of the origins of the euro zone crisis and economic policy recommendations to get out of the crisis have been the subject of great debate among economists, which was illustrated in the EUROFRAME Conference. In the course of these articles, the reader will see several fault-lines:

– For some, it is the irresponsible policies of the South that are the cause of the imbalances: they have allowed the development of wage and property bubbles, while the Northern countries have been implementing virtuous policies of wage austerity and structural reform. The Southern countries thus need to adopt the North’s strategy and undergo a lengthy austerity cure. For others, the single currency has led to the development of twin opposing imbalances: this has led to under-valuing the economies of the North, which enabled them to offset their excessive policies on wage and social austerity with excessive external surpluses, and it has allowed the persistence of the South’s external deficits; this has resulted in the need for a controlled convergence, whereby recovery in the North facilitates the absorption of the South’s external imbalances.

– Some argue that each country must implement policies that combine a strong reduction in public spending – to absorb the budget deficits and reduce the public debt burden – with structural reforms (liberalization of the markets for goods and services, deregulation of the labour market) in order to offset the depressive effect on the labour market. The financial markets have to be allowed to impose the necessary discipline on the countries. Others hold that the public deficits have to be tolerated as long as necessary to support economic activity, public debt needs to be guaranteed by the European Central Bank (ECB) to ensure that domestic interest rates converge at low rates, and an EU-wide growth strategy is needed (in particular to finance the investments required for the ecological transition).

– Some even believe that we must avoid any further extension of European solidarity, as it would enable some countries to put off the reforms needed, which would lead to persistent imbalances and thus to money creation and inflation. Others argue that errors have been made on economic policy since the inception of the euro zone, and that these have led to sharp disparities in the zone, which now need to be reduced by means of a coherent solidarity strategy. Europe is one big family and must demonstrate its solidarity and accept compromises to continue to live together.

– For some, ending the debt crisis of the euro zone countries requires the establishment of a fiscal union, which means the establishment of binding rules enshrined in the Fiscal Pact and a certain degree of fiscal federalism; the European Commission and Council should have a say on the fiscal policies of the Member States. Others think that the Member States should have a degree of autonomy to practice the fiscal policy they choose; this is a matter of both democracy and economic efficiency: the economic situations of the different countries are too diverse to invoke a uniform fiscal policy; what is needed is the open coordination of economic policy, without rigid pre-established standards on public finances, with the aim of ensuring satisfactory growth and the winding down of external imbalances.

[1] EUROFRAME is a network of European economic institutes, which includes: the DIW and IFW (Germany), WIFO (Austria), ETLA (Finland), OFCE (France), ESRI (Ireland), PROMETEIA (Italy), CPB (Netherlands), CASE (Poland), NIESR (United Kingdom).

[2] Ten of which are in English and two in French.



The governance of public finances: from the Fiscal pact to France’s Organic law

by Henri Sterdyniak

So the French government has had Parliament enact an “Organic law relating to the planning and governance of public finances” (loi organique relative à la programmation et à la gouvernance des finances publiques), which translates into French law the European Fiscal pact (the Treaty on stability, coordination and governance) that France had made a commitment to ratify. This Law can be assessed from two points of view: from the perspective of how well it conforms to the Treaty or from the viewpoint of its own relevance, i.e. will it improve France’s fiscal policy?

In fact, the government has chosen – as the Constitutional Council had provided it with the possibility of so doing – a minimalist approach to taking into account the Treaty. The new budgetary procedure is not incorporated into the Constitution, and as we shall see, the Treaty provides for certain automatic binding procedures that the Organic law tempers or does not mention.

The Organic Law has three sections, dealing respectively with the budget plan (loi de programmation des finances publiques – LPFP), the High Council on the Public Finances (Haut Conseil des finances publiques), and a correction mechanism.

The Budget Plan

Article 1 of the Organic Law stipulates: “In accordance with the objective of balanced government accounts as set out in Article 34 of the Constitution, the LPFP sets the medium-term targets of the government administrations referred to in Article 3 of the TSCG.”

Article 34 of the Constitution, adopted on 31 July 2008, set out only a medium-term non-binding target. It has had little influence on the fiscal policy adopted since then. In times of crisis, the multi-year guidelines quickly cease to have an influence. This was the case, for example, in 2009. The 2009 deficit, which was set at 0.9% of GDP by the four-year budget plan passed in January 2008, and 3.9% of GDP according to the January 2009 plan, ultimately amounted to 7.5%. Should we give up this flexibility?

Moreover, how can the budget plan “set a target” when the target flows from Article 3 of the Treaty, which clearly states that the target should be a structural deficit of less than 0.5% of GDP and that a path for an adjustment to ensure a rapid convergence toward equilibrium will be proposed by the European Commission?

Doesn’t the ambiguity of this article actually reflect an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable: the sovereignty of Parliament in budgetary matters with France’s commitment to follow the recommendations of the Commission?

Article 1 of the Organic Law continues: “The budget plan (LPFP) determines the trajectory of the successive annual actual balances and structural balances… The structural balance is the cyclically-adjusted balance net of one-off and temporary measures.” Article 3 states that the period covered is at least three years.

Thus, the Law takes no account of the experience of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP): it is impossible to fix a trajectory for the public finances, in terms of the structural and actual deficit, for a period of three years. In January 2008, France was committed to having a balanced budget in 2012. It won’t even get close. Should commitments be made that are impossible to keep?

This is impossible for two reasons. First, unpredictable economic fluctuations make it necessary to constantly adapt economic policy. In case of a deep crisis, as since 2009, it is necessary to make use of both economic stabilizers and discretionary measures (which increase what is called the structural deficit). If taken seriously, the Treaty prohibits any policy to boost activity during a downturn in activity. In the autumn of 2008, according to the Commission France had a structural deficit of 3.2% of GDP. If the Treaty had been in force, it would have had to reduce this quickly to 2.5% in 2009. In fact, France has moved to a structural deficit of 6% of GDP, according to the Commission’s assessment, in other words, 3.5 percentage points higher. Is the government wrong to have promoted activity, or to have come to the rescue of the banks? Should it have embarked on a tough austerity policy to offset the fall in tax revenue?

The text is, of course, ambiguous. On the one hand, it sets out that the structural deficit does not include “one-off and temporary” measures. Assistance to banks is undoubtedly a one-off, but why not all the 2009 stimulus measures, or in the opposite direction, the 75% income tax assessment which is scheduled for 2 years? Who decides? On the other hand, the Treaty recognizes that a country may deviate from its target or its adjustment path in the event of “exceptional circumstances” which, since the revision of the Growth and Stability Pact, can be interpreted as negative growth or a large output gap. However, the Commission refuses to recognize that most euro zone countries have actually been in this situation since 2009, and it is insisting on imposing rapid deficit reduction policies on them.

On the other hand, a State has no economic reason to set itself a standard for balancing the public purse. According to the true “golden rule of public finance”, which was stated by the economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu in the late nineteenth century, it is legitimate to finance public investment through debt. In the case of France, a structural deficit of around 2.4% of GDP is legitimate.

As in the Treaty, Article 1 of the Organic Law refers to the structural balance, the balance that would exist if France were at its potential output, the maximum output consistent with stable inflation. But the size of this potential output, which cannot simply be observed, is a subject of debate among economists. Different methods produce different results, which are subject to sharp revisions. France’s structural balance in 2012 is 3.6% according to the French government, 3% according to the European Commission, 2.8% according to the OECD, and according to us 0.5%, since the crisis has caused us to lose 8% of GDP compared to our growth trend. The Treaty requires the use of the Commission’s method. Is this scientifically legitimate? Can France call into question this assessment?

Article 5 states that the potential growth assumptions should be presented in an appendix, but the definition of potential growth is even more questionable than that of potential output. For example, the latest budget bill (projet de loi de finances – PLF) expects potential growth of 1.5% per year up to 2017 for France, thus abandoning forever the expectation of making up the 8 points of activity lost to the crisis.

The Organic Law simply forgets Article 4 of the Treaty (which requires a country with a debt of over 60% of GDP to reduce the gap by one-twentieth per year). It also ignores Article 5, which states that a country subject to an Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) is to be placed under supervision, and has to submit to the EU Council and Commission annual budget plans and a list of the structural reforms that it will implement in order to make a sustainable correction to its deficit. It is this article that obliges France, like many other EU countries, to do all it can to get down to a 3% deficit by 2013, regardless of the economic situation, since, in case of an EDP, the constraint pertains to the actual balance and not the structural balance. It forgets Article 7, which states that, in this context, the decisions of the Commission are obligatory (member countries can oppose it only with a qualified majority, with the country concerned not voting).

The LPFP will cover a period of four to five years, but will be voted upon again each year, so that the constraint thus introduced can be changed by a vote on a new budget plan. This has been the case in France for as long as the Fiscal Pact has existed. Thus, the LPFP does not introduce any supplementary constraint itself, other than what is already required by European legislation.

The High Council of Public Finance

The Organic Law sets up a High Council of Public Finance, which will advise on the macroeconomic forecasts underlying the budget bill (LPF), the bill financing social security, the adjustment budget bills, the stability program that France must provide to the European authorities, and the budget plan (LPFP). It will assess whether France has been meeting its European commitments, and verify that the LPF (budget bill) is consistent with the trajectory announced in the budget plan (LPFP). It will give its opinion on any evocation of “exceptional circumstances”.

Chaired by the President of France’s Court of Audit (Cour des comptes), the High Council consists of four members from the Court of Audit and four members appointed for their expertise in public finance by the Presidents of the National Assembly, the Senate and the two finance commissions. This predominance of the Court of Audit is problematic. The judicial officers from the Court of Audit are not a priori experts in macroeconomics, and they are often, based on their function, more concerned with balancing the public finances than with growth and employment. For instance, the latest reports from the Court of Audit underestimate the output gap, support the thesis that the fiscal multiplier is close to zero, and believe that it is better to reduce public spending than to increase taxes. We would like to be certain that the composition of the High Council and its work and reports reflect the diversity of opinion that exists on fiscal policy.

More fundamentally, it is questionable whether the High Council has room for flexibility in its assessments. Will it have the right to conclude that the path of adjustment is too restrictive, and that the medium-term objective is not realistic? What strategy will be advocated by the High Council in the event of an economic slowdown: an expansionary policy to support growth or an austerity policy to restore the public finances?

Assume, for example, that the government has a budget for 2013 based on growth of 1.2%, resulting in a deficit of 3%. The High Council believes that growth will instead be only 0.6%, causing a decline in tax revenues, and thus a deficit of 3.3%. It will advocate doing whatever is necessary to achieve a 3% deficit. Assuming that the fiscal multiplier is 1, it will be necessary to come up with 12 billion in tax increases (or spending cuts), or 0.6% of GDP, to have an ex post deficit of 3%, but no growth. There is thus a great risk that this will lead to pro-cyclical policies. This will of course be mitigated when France is longer be subject to an EDP, as the High Council can then reason in terms of the structural deficit, but this will persist because everything will then depend on evaluating the structural deficit.

Lastly, there is the question of what legitimacy the High Council will have. The choice of fiscal policy must be subject to democratic procedures. The assessment of economic policy is part of a scientific, democratic debate. Should it be entrusted to a High Council, composed mainly of judicial experts, rather than economists on the one hand and representatives of the nation on the other?

The High Council will of course only give advice, which neither the government nor parliament are obliged to follow, but the risk is great that these opinions will affect the financial markets and the Commission and that it would be risky for the government to ignore them.

The correction mechanism

To ensure that countries do indeed follow the adjustment path, the Treaty requires countries to provide an automatic correction mechanism if deviations are observed with respect to this path. In the minds of the negotiators of the North European countries and members of the Commission, this mechanism should provide that if a deviation of 1% of GDP is seen in year N, the Constitution provides that, automatically, a certain tax (e.g. VAT) would be raised by 0.5 GDP point and certain expenditures (e.g. social benefits) would be reduced by 0.5 GDP point.

In fact, Chapter 3 of France’s Organic Law provides that the High Council is to report such a gap, the government is to set out the reasons for this discrepancy and then take it into account in drawing up the next budget bill. Parliament’s rights are respected, but fortunately the character of being automatic is not guaranteed.


In the spirit of its founders, the fiscal treaty must put an end to the possibility of autonomous national fiscal policies. Fiscal policies should become automatic. The goal of fiscal policy should be balancing the budget, just as the goal of monetary policy should be fighting inflation; growth and employment are to be sought by means of free market structural reforms.

The Organic Law seems to be an ambiguous compromise. France is ratifying the Treaty, but implementing it only reluctantly. It’s a safe bet that, as with the Stability Pact, there will be great tension in the euro zone between purists who demand the strict application of the Treaty and those who do not want to sacrifice growth to it.



The misfortunes of virtue*

By Christophe Blot

* This text summarizes the outlook produced by the Department of Analysis and Forecasting for the euro zone economy in 2012-2013, which is available in French on the OFCE web site

The euro zone is still in crisis: an economic crisis, a social crisis and a fiscal crisis. The 0.3% decline in GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011 is a reminder that the recovery that began after the great drop of 2008-2009 is fragile and that the euro zone has taken the first step into recession, which will be confirmed in early 2012.

The fall in the average long-term government interest rate in the euro zone seen since the beginning of the year has come to a halt. After reaching 3.25% on 9 March, it rose again due to new pressures that emerged on Italian and Spanish rates. Indeed, despite the agreement to avoid a default by Greece, Spain was the source of new worries after the announcement that its budget deficit had reached 8.5% in 2011 – 2.5 points above the original target – and the declaration that it would not meet its commitments for 2012, which has reinforced doubts about the sustainability of its debt. The Spanish situation illustrates the close link between the macroeconomic crisis and the sovereign debt crisis that has hit the entire euro zone. The implementation of fiscal adjustment plans in Europe, whose impact is being amplified by strong economic interdependence, is causing a slowdown or even a recession in various euro zone countries. The impact of synchronized restrictions is still being underestimated, to such an extent that governments are often being assigned targets that are difficult to achieve, except by accepting an even sharper recession. So long as the euro zone continues to be locked in a strategy of synchronized austerity that condemns in advance any resumption of activity or reduction in unemployment, the pressure will not fail to mount once again in 2012. Long-term public interest rates in the euro zone will remain above those of the United States and the United Kingdom (see the figure), even though the average budget deficit was considerably lower in 2011 in the euro zone than in these two countries: 3.6% against 9.7% in the US and 8.3% in the UK.

To pull out of this recessionary spiral, the euro zone countries need to recognize that austerity is not the only way to reduce budget deficits. Growth and the level of interest rates are two other factors that are equally important for ensuring the sustainability of the public debt. It is therefore urgent to set out a different strategy, one that is less costly in terms of growth and employment, which is the only way to guarantee against the risk that the euro zone could fall apart. First, generalized austerity should be abandoned. The main problem with the euro zone is not debt but growth and unemployment. Solidarity must be strengthened to curb speculation on the debt of the weaker countries. The fiscal policies of the Member states also need to be better coordinated in order to mitigate the indirect effects of cutbacks by some on the growth of others [1]. It is necessary to stagger fiscal consolidation over time whenever the latter is needed to ensure debt sustainability. At the same time, countries with room for fiscal manoeuvre should develop more expansionary fiscal policies. Finally, the activities of the European Central Bank should be strengthened and coordinated with those of the euro zone governments. The ECB alone has the means to anchor short-term and long-term interest rates at a sufficiently low level to make it possible both to support growth and to facilitate the refinancing of budget deficits. In two exceptional refinancing operations, the ECB has provided more than 1,000 billion euros for refinancing the euro zone banks. This infusion of liquidity was essential to meet the banks’ difficulties in finding financing on the market. It also demonstrates the capacity for action by the monetary authorities. The portfolio of government debt securities held by the ECB at end March 2012 came to 214 billion euros, or 2.3% of euro zone GDP. In comparison, in the United States and the United Kingdom, the portfolio of government securities held by the central banks represents more than 10% of their GDP. The ECB therefore has significant room for manoeuvre to reduce the risk premium on euro zone interest rates by buying government securities in the secondary markets. Such measures would make it possible to lower the cost of ensuring the sustainability of the long-term debt.


[1] See “He who sows austerity reaps recession”, OFCE note no. 16, March 2012.

What new European austerity plans await us in 2012?

By Eric Heyer

To meet French commitments vis-à-vis Brussels to a general government deficit in 2012 of 4.5% of GDP, the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced a new plan to cut the budget by 7 billion euros. Will the plan, announced 7 November, be sufficient? Certainly not! So what new austerity plans should we expect in the coming months, and what impact will they have on growth in 2012?

In early October 2011, among the points we indicated in our forecast dossier was that, of all the finance bills approved in Europe, no major country has met its commitment to reduce the deficit.

This will be the case in particular of Italy and the UK, which could face a gap of between 1.5 and 2 percentage points between the final public deficit and their commitment. In the case of France and Spain, the gap will probably be 0.6 and 0.7 point, respectively. Only Germany will come very close to its commitments (Table 2).

Unlike in previous years, the implementation of these commitments would seem probable: in an uncertain financial context, being the only State not to comply with its promise of fiscal consolidation would be punished immediately by more expensive financial terms on the repayment of its debt.

This will therefore require the adoption of new austerity plans in the coming months. But by attempting to reduce their deficits too early, too quickly and in a synchronized fashion, the governments of the European countries are running the risk of a new downturn. Indeed, as we noted in a recent study, tightening budget policy during a cyclical downturn in all the European countries and doing so in a situation of a persistent “liquidity trap” is contributing to the formation of a strong multiplier, close to unity.

How many billion euros will be targeted by the next fiscal savings plans? What impact will they have on economic growth? Several possible cases were considered.

Case 1: Each country respects its commitment alone
In order to isolate the impact on growth of the national savings plan and those of the partners, we have assumed that each country meets its commitment alone. Under this assumption, the effort would be significant in Italy and the UK, which would present new austerity plans for, respectively, 3.5 and 2.8 points of their GDP (56 and 48.7 billion euros). France and Spain would implement an austerity plan two to three times smaller, about 1.2 points of GDP, representing 27 and 12.1 billion euros, respectively. Finally, the German savings plan would be the weakest, with 0.3 point of GDP (7 billion euros) (Table 1).


These different national austerity plans, taken in isolation, would have a non-negligible impact on the growth of the countries studied. With the exception of Germany, which would continue to have positive growth in 2012 (0.9%), this kind of strategy would plunge the other economies into a new recession in 2012, with a decline in their GDP ranging from -0.1% for Spain to -2.9% for Italy. France would experience a decline in activity of -0.5% and the British economy of -1.9% (Table 2).


Case 2: All the EU countries meet their commitment

Of course, if all the major European countries were to adopt the same strategy at the same time, then the savings effort would be greater. It would amount to about 64 billion euros in Italy and 55 billion euros in the UK, accounting for 4 and 3.2 percentage points of GDP, respectively. The additional effort would be about 2.0 percentage points of GDP for France and Spain (respectively 39.8 and 19.6 billion euros) and 0.9 GDP point for Germany (22.3 billion euros). In total for the five countries studied, the cumulative savings effort would represent more than 200 billion euros in 2012.

The shock on the activity of these countries would be powerful: it would cause a violent recession in 2012 for some countries, with a fall in GDP of -3.9% in Italy (against -5.1% in 2009), and -2.6 % in the UK (against -4.9% in 2009). France would be close to recession (-1.7%), as would Spain (-1.5%), while German GDP would decline slightly (-0.3%).

Case 3: Only the countries in the euro zone meet their commitment

As the UK has already implemented a substantial austerity program, and given that their constraints in terms of the deficit are more flexible than those of countries in the euro zone, we assumed that only the major countries in the euro zone complied with their commitments on the public deficit. Under these conditions, the cumulative savings effort would represent more than 130 billion euros in 2012, almost half of which would be from Italy alone (61.7 billion).

The recessionary shock would thus be focused on the euro zone, with a recession in all the countries studied except Germany (0.1%). The British economy would avoid a new period of recession (0.5%), but it would not meet the target of 6.5 percentage points of GDP for the public deficit, which would come to 8.2 GDP points.


The G20 Summit in Cannes: Chronicle of a Disappointment Foretold?

By Jérôme Creel and Francesco Saraceno

Too long and too technical, the final declaration of collective action of the G20 Summit in Cannes shows that no clear and shared vision of the economic and financial turmoil that is rocking the global economy has emerged at the Summit. And as Seneca reminds us, the disappointment would have been less painful if success had not been promised in advance.

According to the official announcements, the disappointment was palpable at the end of a G20 summit in which no significant progress was achieved ​​on the most important issues of the moment, the revival of growth in particular. The crucial issues of agriculture and finance gave rise simply to declarations of intent, with a reminder of the commitments made on these … in 2008! The disappointment must be kept in perspective, however, as the G20 is primarily a forum for discussion rather than for decisions. Indeed, what remains of the commitments made in April 2009 by the G20 in London, mired in global recession? The expansionary fiscal policies? Forgotten, as a result of the public debt that they have produced – debt, by the way, that was perfectly predictable. Strengthened financial regulation? Repeatedly trotted out, but still not implemented, despite the determination displayed in Paris on 14 and 15 October 2011. The desire to avoid protectionism? Barely mentioned, nor did this succeed in preventing the outbreak of 36 trade disputes brought before the WTO, including 14 involving China, the EU and / or the United States. All that remains is a monetary policy that is “expansionary as long as necessary”, in the words of the pre-Summit statements. So does the fate of the international monetary system depend simply on the good will of the central bankers, independent as they are?

The meeting was also troubled by the crisis hitting the euro zone, which virtually forced off the agenda such important issues as the resurgence of protectionism, which was relegated to paragraphs 65 to 68 of a 95-paragraph document. At Cannes, the emerging economies and the US were spectators of a drama unfolding between Paris, Berlin, Rome and Athens.

The crisis hitting the euro zone is a result of the heterogeneity of its constituent countries, much as the financial crisis triggered in 2007 was a result not just of a lack of financial regulation but also of the increasing heterogeneity between mercantile countries and countries presumed to be the El Dorados of investment, on the one hand China and Germany, and on the other, the United States and Ireland. This European heterogeneity, one of four deficiences of the euro zone, has led countries with a surplus in their current accounts to finance countries running a deficit. Alone, and with its priority on the fight against inflation imposed by the Treaty of the EU, the ECB is unable to promote convergence within the euro zone. However, in the short term it can end the crisis in the euro by agreeing to provide full coverage of public debts in the euro zone (see [1], [2] or [3]), and by significantly increasing its purchases of government debt in Europe. This would maintain European financial stability and perhaps generate inflationary expectations, thereby helping to lift Europe’s economy out of the liquidity trap in which it has been mired since the beginning of the financial crisis. Note that despite its activism, the US Federal Reserve has not so far managed to create such expectations and remains caught in the same kind of liquidity trap.

In the longer term, it is necessary to review European economic governance. The active use of economic policy in the United States and China contrasts with the caution displayed by the ECB and with the European reluctance to pursue expansionary fiscal policies, and more generally with the decision to build European economic governance on a refusal of discretionary policies. It would be desirable for the ECB, while preserving its independence, to be able to pursue a dual mandate on inflation and growth, and for the rules that discipline fiscal policy to be “smarter” and more flexible.

Giving the economic policy authorities an opportunity to implement discretionary policies should not mean forgetting about the risks posed by the absence of a coordinated approach, which may lead the US Congress to threaten unilateral compensatory taxes on goods imported from countries whose currency is undervalued. This move is evoking the specter of protectionism, and the G20 countries should consider a mechanism to coordinate policy so as to avoid the trade wars that are already being more or less explicitly declared.

Furthermore, a currency war does not seem to be an effective way to protect our economies: the under-or overvaluation of a currency is a complex concept to apply, and the impact of a currency’s value on exports and imports is made very uncertain by the international fragmentation that characterizes the production of goods and services. Rather than employing a defensive policy, it is definitely better to substitute an active industrial policy to take advantage of new technological niches that create business and jobs.

Finally, for words to have real meaning – to “build confidence and support growth” in the advanced economies and “support growth” while “containing inflationary pressures” in the emerging economies (G20 Communiqué, Paris, 14-15 October 2011) – we must challenge the “contagion of fiscal contraction” that is now shaking the euro area and, rather than an additional phase of rigor, put recovery plans on the agenda in the advanced economies while interest rates are still low. These plans must be targeted in order to generate growth and not jeopardize the solvency of public finances: it is thus necessary to encourage public investment. To maximize their overall impact, these plans need to be coordinated, including with the actions of the central banks, so that the latter can support them by maintaining low interest rates. The Summit in November 2011 was very timely for this kind of coordinated approach to emerge. Unfortunately, it didn’t.