The responsibility pact’s obligation of a result

By Xavier Timbeau, @XTimbeau, OFCE

The original French text was published in the “Rebonds” section of the newspaper Libération on 28 February 2014.

Is the policy supply-side or demand-side? This debate takes us back decades to a time when the advocates of supply-side policy, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, wanted to put Keynesian practices into the closet. With respect to the responsibility pact, the debate is moot. There is a clear diagnosis that companies are suffering from such low margin rates that their very survival is threatened. The losses of market share since the 2000s cannot be explained solely by the transition to a post-industrial society. It is thus a priority to boost corporate margins by whatever means necessary. But the restoration of business margins will not be sufficient to put them back on a path of increasing productivity, ensuring their competitiveness in the medium term. Getting back on this path will require numerous reforms, ranging from a better education system to a stable tax system that is as neutral as possible, while making use of the impact of agglomeration and specialization. Coordinating everyone’s projects around a comprehensive strategy to make the energy transition is also a powerful instrument. But the responsibility pact remains silent on this.

To be clear, the responsibility pact aims to improve the situation of business, which could partially offset the decline in activity resulting from the 2008 crisis and the French economy’s loss of competitiveness relative to its partners undergoing deflation (including Spain) or due to a rise in the euro. In so far as the pact is financed by taxes or spending cuts, this will constitute a tax depreciation, which will make consumers, employees and those on social benefits pay for the reduction in business costs. When the decrease in the cost of doing business is more focused on lower wages, then we can expect the creation of something like 130,000 jobs in five years, taking into account the financing (see for example the article by Heyer and Plane in the revue de l’OFCE no. 126).  The counterparties, the support of the trade unions and the MEDEF employer association and the general mobilization around a shared bleak diagnosis, will not lead to the revolution that some expect, but it is part of the solution.

A fiscal devaluation at a time when the countries of southern Europe are flirting with deflation and everyone is chasing after a balanced current account, including by curbing domestic demand, will of course not lead the euro zone out of crisis, but instead keep it in prolonged stagnation. Fiscal devaluation is not the right policy for Europe. But so long as Europe has no path other than mass suicide, then fiscal devaluation is the logical response for France.

130,000 jobs will not be sufficient to reverse the trend in unemployment. In the face of the more than one million additional unemployed since 2008, it is downright derisory. But the responsibility pact could be something other than a fiscal devaluation. The obligation of a result, namely to reduce unemployment, does not leave much choice. For the responsibility pact to be accompanied by a significant reduction in unemployment, the key is not to finance it. The proposal to be made to our partners consists of laxity on our public deficit trajectory in exchange for reforms that everyone would consider structural. Public spending cuts, favourable taxation of business, the prioritization of competitiveness, are all measures that can generate some manoeuvring room.

France has made a commitment to Brussels to reduce its structural deficit by 50 billion euros. If this fiscal effort is made by 2017, almost 1 point of growth will be lopped off every year, and unemployment will virtually not decline at all by 2017. In fact, only the public deficit would be reduced, to 1.2 percent of GDP; this would open up very favourable prospects after 2017, since the public debt will fall without further budgetary cuts and therefore without hindering the decline in unemployment. It’s a comfortable scenario for François Hollande’s successor, assuming there is one, as they can even use the situation to lower taxes for the rich. With a combination of lower taxes, lower unemployment and a declining public debt, it will look like a “magician” has succeeded an “incompetent”.

On the other hand, using the flexibility offered by the 50 billion euros, that is to say, renouncing the 50 billion goal for structural deficit reduction, would yield a very different result. Simulations at the OFCE indicate that unemployment could be cut by nearly 2 points by 2017. Admittedly, the structural deficit would remain unchanged, but the public deficit, what we see, would be on a downward trajectory: in 2017, it would come to just over 2 GDP points (against 4.2 points at end 2013), bringing the public debt into the region of a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio. The situation on the eve of the presidential election would be better, and the voting more open.

To develop this manoeuvring room, our partners (and the European Commission) need to be convinced of just how drastic the situation is. The results of the European elections are likely to remind them and make the obligation of a result clear to all.

Reagan had a great ability to look towards fiscal policy for the motor of his supply-side policy. He thus created the myth that lowering taxes on the rich is good for growth, with consequences for inequality that we are still seeing today. Thatcher believed until the end that reducing the public debt was the right policy. This merely prepared the ground for Tony Blair a few years later. This is the way that political cycles are made, based on results. In the same way, we are responsible for the long-term consequences of the choices we make today.