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.


A recession is not inevitable

By Marion Cochard, Bruno Ducoudré and Danielle Schweisguth

The cold blast from the autumn forecasts continues with the publication of the European Central Bank’s latest forecasts. Revising its growth outlook for the euro zone downwards (to -0.3% for 2013, against the forecast of 0.9% in September), the ECB in turn is now pointing to the reinforced austerity measures and the growing impact of uncertainty in the financial markets. It is clear that the intensity of the fiscal consolidation is paralyzing growth in the euro zone through the interplay of the fiscal multipliers, while not managing to restore confidence. In this note we show that the recessionary spiral that the euro zone is getting sucked into is not an inevitability.

In the first edition of the 2013 iAGS report, which was produced in partnership with the German IMK institute and the Danish ECLM institute, the OFCE offers an alternative strategy to the current fiscal consolidation policy. This alternative would make it possible to restore growth in the medium term while still meeting the European budget commitments. As Jérôme Creel showed in his latest post, “Could France have a different fiscal policy?”, there is room for budgetary manoeuvring in a way that is consistent with the current treaty framework.

Under the aegis of the European Commission, the European countries have pledged to continue their austerity programmes from 2013 to 2015 on a relatively large scale, especially if we take into account the efforts already made. Apart from Germany, where the cumulative fiscal impulse will be virtually nil, most European countries are planning to reduce their primary structural deficit by more than 2 GDP points between 2012 and 2015 (from -1.4 points for Finland to -7.5 points for Greece, cf. the table).

These adjustments are being undertaken in a very poor economic climate, which has been marked by austerity budgets from 2010 to 2012: growth in the euro zone will be -0.4% in 2012 and -0.3% in 2013. However, according to a series of recent theoretical and empirical studies[1], the fiscal multipliers turn upwards as the economic cycle heads downwards. In this context, the speed and magnitude of the fiscal adjustment is especially costly in terms of growth, and thus counter-productive in terms of the fiscal consolidation.[2] Encouraging a return to growth by easing the austerity would enable the economies of the euro zone to pull out of their recessionary spiral, which is marked by a steep rise in unemployment.

In order to develop this alternative strategy, we used the iAGS model to carry out simulations for the euro zone countries over a period of 20 years. These were conducted in two steps:

  1. In our central scenario, we integrated the planned budget cuts announced by the various countries up to 2015. Starting from 2016, we calculated the fiscal impulses needed to achieve the 60% debt threshold by 2032, while limiting the size of these impulses to +/-0.5 GDP points per year. As shown in Figure 1 (central scenario), the structural adjustment carried out between 2010 and 2015 is significant enough in most countries to allow a relaxation of economic policy starting in 2016, while meeting the debt criterion by 2032.
  2. For each country, we then decided on an alternative budget strategy by staggering the reduction of the structural deficit over time. This strategy consists in starting in 2013 with the implementation of fiscal impulses of a more limited amount in absolute value than those announced by the current governments (maximum +/-0.5 GDP points per year), and doing this until the adjustment is sufficient to achieve the debt target of 60% of GDP by 2032. This strategy leads to more measured fiscal adjustment for the euro zone countries in difficulty and to slightly positive fiscal impulses in countries whose debt trajectory is in better shape (Germany, Finland, and Italy). For the zone as a whole, the fiscal impulse is almost zero in 2013 and 2014, with the bulk of the adjustment spread from 2017 to 2024.



Figure 1 shows the difference in the level of GDP between the two scenarios. Limiting the size of the fiscal impulses helps to achieve a higher level of GDP and is compatible with a debt target of 60% of GDP by 2032 (alternative scenario). The effectiveness of the fiscal consolidation is enhanced when it is being conducted in an environment that is less unfavourable to the economy. This strategy achieves the same debt target with a cumulative fiscal adjustment that is 50 billion euros less than in the central scenario.

According to our calculations, the alternative scenario would restore a 2% growth rate in the euro zone in 2013, compared with -0.3% if the planned fiscal policies are carried out. The revival of activity would boost the labour market and help to turn around the unemployment rate in 2013, with a decline to 10.2% in 2015, compared with 12.8% if the austerity policies are continued, representing 3 million fewer unemployed people in 2015.

[1] A review of the recent literature on fiscal multipliers: size matters!

[2] What is the value of the fiscal multipliers today?




By Jérôme Creel

In a beautiful book for children, every two pages Claude Ponti drew two chicks, one of which says to the other: “Pete and Repeat are in a boat. Pete falls overboard. Who is left?” Then the other chick says, “Repeat”, and off we go again. At the end of the book, the second chick, its eyes bulging, screams: “Repeat!” And it never stops. It’s a bit like these analyses of economic growth and fiscal contractions where almost every month it is rediscovered that the ongoing fiscal contractions are reducing economic growth or that underestimating the real impact of fiscal policy is leading to forecast errors.

Recently, and after having authored a box in the 2013 World Economic Outlook in October 2012, Daniel Leigh and Olivier Blanchard of the IMF published a working document that confirms that the IMF’s recent forecasting errors are due to erroneous assumptions about the multiplier effect. Because this effect was underestimated, especially at the bottom of the economic cycle, the IMF forecasters, though they are not alone (see in particular the note by Bruno Ducoudré), underestimated growth forecasts: they had not anticipated that what was required by the austerity measures and their implementation would have such a negative impact on consumer spending and business investment. The attempt to reduce state debt was taking place during a period when households and businesses were also deleveraging, meaning that it would be difficult to avoid falling into the trap of recession.

Since it must be repeated, let’s repeat! “Expansionary-fiscal-contractions and Repeat are in a boat. Expansionary-fiscal-contractions falls overboard. Who is left in the boat? Repeat!” In support of this short story, it is worth referring to a literature review conducted by Eric Heyer: he shows the extent of the consensus that actually exists on the value of the fiscal multipliers, a consensus that has emerged since 2009, i.e. in the midst of a recession and at the very time that recommendations for austerity measures began to emerge. A note by Xavier Timbeau shows that the analysis of current fiscal cutbacks supports an assessment that the value of the fiscal multiplier is much higher in a crisis than in normal times … What paradoxes!

What is to be done now? Repeat, yet again, that recession may not be inevitable: as Marion Cochard, Bruno Ducoudré and Danielle Schweisguth pointed out in a supplement to the 2013 iAGS report, it is urgent to temper existing fiscal austerity measures in the euro zone: European growth but also actual fiscal consolidation would improve at last.