1

The French policy mix and support for private R&D: What realities for what results?

By Benjamin Montmartin

France can be viewed as a unique experimental laboratory in terms of public support for investment in R&D. Indeed, since the Research Tax Credit was reformed in 2008, France has become the most generous country in the OECD in terms of tax incentives for R&D (OECD, 2018a.) In 2014, the tax credit alone represented (MESRI, 2017) a total of nearly 6 billion euros for the State, and the specific taxation scheme on patent grant revenues (15%) costs the State between 600 and 800 million euros per year. In addition to these losses in tax revenue, there are the various measures to directly support innovation (grants, loans at subsidized rates, etc.) which are financed mainly through the Public Investment Bank (BPI), the Competitiveness centres (PC), local authorities and the European Commission. This direct support accounted for around 3.5 billion euros in 2014. The total cost of all these support measures today comes to over 10 billion euros per year, almost half a percentage point of GDP.

While innovation is one of the main drivers of growth, this is not enough to justify this level of public spending. These devices must also achieve their objective. And from this point of view, the results of the empirical studies evaluating support systems for R&D and innovation are very mixed (Salies, 2018). Moreover, there does not seem to be a direct link between the generosity of States and the level of business investment in R&D. In this respect, a simple comparison between Germany and France is instructive and cannot be explained solely by sectoral differences. In 2015 (OECD, 2018b) private sector spending on R&D in France accounted for 1.44% of GDP compared to 2.01% in Germany, while public funding for these expenditures was around 5% in Germany against almost 40% in France.

In this context, it seems necessary to better understand the performance of the French policy-mix with respect to private investment in R&D. A recent OFCE working paper reviews the effect of State aid on R&D spending by French companies. The article differs from existing studies in two main ways. First, instead of focusing on the ability of a particular instrument to generate an additionality, it simultaneously analyzes the impact of the tax credit and the various direct aids in accordance with their institutional source: local, national or European. Second, it assesses the extent to which the geographic structuring of innovation activities in France might influence the effectiveness of R&D support policies. Indeed, unlike Germany, where the geography of innovation is marked by a continuum between innovative territories (European Commission, 2014), France seems more prone to shadow effects[1], as the most innovative territories (the “hubs”) are dispersed and often surrounded by territory that is not very innovative, as shown in the figure below.

IMG_post15-05_ENG

Our analysis uses data from firms aggregated at the departmental level over the 2001-2011 period and clearly shows the importance of the spatial organization of innovative activities for the effectiveness of innovation policy. Indeed, it appears that the specificity of the geography of R&D investment in France generates a negative spatial dependence, that is to say, that the hubs are strengthened at the expense of the territories lagging behind. Policies that fail to take this dependence into account will have an overall weaker effect.

And that’s exactly what our results show. Indeed, if we do not take into account this spatial dependence, it appears that the instruments studied (tax credit and the various subsidies) are as a whole capable of generating a significant additionality effect on investment in R&D. On the other hand, if we take into account this dependency, only the national subsidies seem to be able to generate such an effect. In other words, only national grants are able to generate benefits that help all the territories.

In our opinion, this result can be explained by the fact that national grants finance more collaborative projects involving actors from different territories and are therefore more likely to make use of complementarity. Conversely, the tax credit is not targeted geographically and does not particularly favour collaborative projects. Local grants primarily finance projects involving local forces, while European grants favour partnerships with foreign organisations. Thus, these last three sources of financing are more likely to encourage competition effects than complementarity effects between territories.

From a more overall viewpoint, our results therefore underline a nuanced effectiveness of the French policy-mix to promote R&D, as no policy studied seems to generate a significant windfall effect. Nevertheless, changes in the French policy-mix over the last decade, marked by a very pronounced increase in non-geographically targeted policies (tax credit) and, to a lesser extent, competitive policies (local subsidies) seems rather to indicate a decline in its ability to generate a very significant additionality effect.

[1] “Shadow effects” refer to the idea that a territory’s increasing attractiveness often comes at the detriment of other territories, due in particular to the impact of competitiveness issues.

 

References

Salies, E., 2018, Impact du Crédit d’impôt recherche : une revue bibliographique des études sur données françaises, Revue de l’OFCE no. 154, February 2018.

OECD, 2018a, “R&D Tax incentives: France, 2017”, www.oecd.org/sti/rd-tax-stats-france.pdf, Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation, April.

OECD, 2018b, “OECD time-series estimates of government tax relief for business R&D”,  http://www.oecd.org/sti/rd-tax-stats-tax-expenditures.pdf, April.

MESRI, 2017, “Le crédit d’impôt recherche en 2014”, http://cache.media.enseignementsup-recherche.gouv.fr/file/Chiffres_CIR/79/1/CIR_2017_chiffres2014_maquette_816791.pdf

European Commission, 2014, “Innovation performance: EU Member States, International Competitors and European Regions compared”, Memo, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-140_en.htm, Figure 6.




What Donald Trump’s economic programme reveals

By Xavier Ragot

The US elections are proving to be very revealing. Three different perspectives on the current elections are yielding insights into three areas: first, on the state of the US economy, second, on the state of the thinking of economists, and finally, on the nature of the relationship between economists and politicians.

The US primaries were marked by both the “resistible rise” of Donald Trump and the emergence of Bernie Sanders, who has hit Hilary Clinton from the left but failed to win.

The success of Donald Trump, who circumvented the Republican Party, was based on policy mainsprings that draw on some paranoia about the loss of identity of the United States in the face of concessions made economically to China, politically to Iran, and militarily in Iraq. The country’s loss of status is a very real topic in the United States. The success this theme has enjoyed also stems from the reality of the economic situation of the middle and working classes in the US. The social scars caused by inequality in the country, so elegantly studied by Thomas Piketty, are visible on the streets, reflecting the reality of unequal access to health care (so incomprehensible to a European). While this theme of inequality is the central focus of the Bernie Sanders campaign, popular anger is also being expressed in the Republican camp.

Donald Trump’s economic programme has the poetic but disturbing charm of a ramshackle inventory. By European standards it is difficult to identify it as right, extreme right or left. Trump does have a formal fiscal programme, but it has been significantly “enriched” by media interventions. He is in favour of investment in infrastructure and military spending, the reduction of taxes, an increase in the minimum wage, an end to Obamacare and the total privatization of health care, the taxation of the rich, a reduction of immigration, especially from Mexico (building a wall between the US and Mexico), an aggressive trade policy toward China, which he accuses of dumping and, more recently, a partial default on US public debt. This last point has caused serious waves among Republicans. The United States is one of the world’s few countries to have never defaulted on its public debt, so the Republican candidate publicly raising this possibility comes as a shock.

On this last point, I personally think that defaulting on public debt is a bad idea. This amounts to an uncontrolled tax, without assumption of responsibility, and it can also add to banking instability. Much better would be to impose a tax after a democratic debate. Furthermore, to ease the public debt burden, it is always possible to lower real interest rates on the public debt for a number of years using an accommodative monetary policy, without financial repression (see the article by Blanchard, Dell’Ariccia and Mauro).

Few economists defend Donald Trump’s programme, even the part that sticks strictly to economics. A fairly positive interpretation of Trump’s programme recently gained attention, as it came from a recognized and respected economist, Narayana Kocherlakota (here). Before getting into the reasons for Kocherlakota’s (very relative) support for Trump, it is worth reviewing this economist’s career to see how a crisis can change the way economists think. Narayana Kocherlakota trained as an economist at the University of Chicago, and he has made fundamental, highly technical contributions to financial theory, monetary theory and the dynamic theory of public finances, which are based on the application of tools from intertemporal contract theory. This is a very serious academic! Kocherlakota wrote a text on the state of macroeconomic thought post-crisis that is very interesting because it is based on the broad vision of a researcher who doesn’t recognize his discipline when he looks at economics textbooks (not to mention popular texts). Kocherlakota became chair of the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis in 2009 (stepping down on 1 January 2016). The Minneapolis Fed is known as a hard-core, intellectually active outpost of “anti-Keynesian” thought, to put it in a nutshell. Kocherlakota went through a profound intellectual transformation while at the Fed and took a fairly radical Keynesian turn (here is one original theoretical contribution), which led to conflicts with his colleagues. What was missing in Kocherlakota’s academic output? What economic facts destabilized him to such an extent?

It is obviously difficult to answer these questions. However, it could be argued that Kocherlakota’s own work did not make it possible to foresee the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy or the impact of Obama’s fiscal stimulus plans. Indeed, the US government conducted a very Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy (tax cuts and massive monetary creation), which had positive effects that could not be encompassed by the models of the Minneapolis Fed. The major missing ingredients were the nominal rigidities that give aggregate demand a potentially important role. This issue of nominal rigidities is not a detail in macroeconomics. I have written a text about the return of Keynesian thinking on this issue.

Kocherlakota’s indulgence of the Trump programnme is not therefore that of a hard-core free marketer, but rather that of a converted Keynesian, whose faith seems a bit extreme. Kocherlakota is selling Trump’s Keynesian stimulus based on public spending and lowering taxes. His only concern is that he would like to be sure that Trump would accept higher inflation of around 4% rather than 2%.

Thus, the Trump programme is further blurring the lines between the economic policy of the left and the right. The theme of inequality and impoverishment is dominating debate in the middle and working classes. The global problem of lack of demand and underemployment is worrying economists under the rubric of secular stagnation. The emergence of Bernie Sanders, the hodge-podge of Trump’s economic programme (the violence of his remarks on immigration is not the subject of this text), and on another scale, Kocherlakota’s transformation, all reveal the difficulty facing the emergence of a coherent economic paradigm that has a broad social base. Policy (Republican and Democratic) is groping for a different articulation between the State and the market, a coherent and effective return of economic policy (fiscal and monetary) that is able to stabilize market economies and reduce inequality. This debate will be identical, but, due to the European issue, will take a different form in France’s presidential elections.

 




Lower taxation on business but higher on households

By Mathieu Plane and Raul Sampognaro

Following the delivery of the Gallois Report in November 2012, the government decided at the beginning of Francois Hollande’s five-year term to give priority to reducing the tax burden on business. But since 2015, the President of the Republic seems to have entered a new phase of his term by pursuing the objective of reducing the tax burden on households. This was seen in the elimination of the lowest income tax bracket and the development of a new allowance mechanism that mitigates tax progressivity at the lower levels of income tax. But more broadly, what can be said about the evolution of the compulsory tax burden on households and businesses in 2015 and 2016, as well as over the longer term?

Based on data provided by the INSEE, we have broken down trends in the tax burden since 2001, distinguishing between levies on companies and those on households (Figure). While this is purely an accounting analysis and is not based on the final fiscal impact, it nonetheless gives a view of the breakdown of the tax burden[1]. In particular, this exercise seeks to identify the tax burden by the nature of the direct payer, assuming constant wages and prices (excluding tax). This accounting breakdown does not therefore take into account macroeconomic feedback and does not address the distributional and intergenerational impacts [2] of taxation.

For the period from 2001 to 2014, the data is known and recorded. They are ex post and incorporate both the effects of the discretionary measures passed but also the impact of fiscal gains and shortfalls that are sensitive to the business cycle. However, for 2015 and 2016, the changes in the tax burden for households and businesses are ex ante, that is to say, they are based solely on the discretionary measures that have an impact in 2015 and 2016 and calculated in the Social, Economic and Financial Report of the 2016 Finance Bill for 2016 [Rapport économique social et financier du Projet de loi de finances pour 2016]. They therefore do not, for both years, include potential effects related to variations in tax elasticities that could modify the apparent tax burden rates. Furthermore, under the new accounting standards of the European System of Accounts (ESA) tax credits, such as the CICE, are considered here as reductions in the tax burden, and not as a public expenditure. Furthermore, the CICE tax credit is recognized at the tax burden level in terms of actual payments and not on an accrual basis.

Several major points emerge from this analysis of the recent period. First, tax rates rose sharply in the period 2010-2013, representing an increase of 3.7 percentage points of GDP, with 2.4 points borne by consumers and 1.3 by business. Over this period, fiscal austerity was relatively balanced between households and business, with the two experiencing a tax increase that was more or less proportional to their respective weights in the tax burden [3].

However, from 2014 a decoupling arose between the trends in the tax burdens for households and for business, which is continuing in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, in 2014, due to the impact of the CICE tax credit (6.4 billion euros, or 0.3 percent of GDP), the tax burden on business began to decline (by 0.2 GDP point), while the burden on households continued to rise (by 0.4 GDP point), mainly because of the hike in VAT (5.4 billion), the increase in environmental taxes (0.3 billion with the introduction of the carbon tax) and the increase in the contribution to the public electricity service (CSPE) (1.1 billion), together with the increase in social contributions for households (2.4 billion), mainly due to the rise in contribution rates to the general and complementary social security scheme and the gradual alignment of rates for civil servant with those for private-sector employees.

In 2015, the tax burden on business will fall by 9.7 billion euros (0.5 GDP point) with the implementation of the CICE tax credit (6 billion), the first Responsibility Pact measures (5.9 billion related to the first tranche of reductions in employer social security contributions, an allowance on the C3S tax base and a “suramortissement”, an additional tax reduction, on investment), while other measures, such as those related to pension reform, are increasing corporate taxation (1.7 billion in total). Conversely, the tax burden on households should increase in 2015 by 4.5 billion (0.2 GDP point), despite the elimination of the lowest income tax bracket (-2.8 billion) and the reduction in self-employed contributions (-1 billion). The hike in the ecological tax (carbon tax and TICPE energy tax) and the CSPE together with the non-renewal in 2015 of the exceptional income tax reductions of 2014 represent an increase in taxation on households of, respectively, 3.7 and 1.3 billion. Other measures, such as those affecting the rates of contributions to general, supplemental and civil servant pension schemes (1.2 billion), along with local taxation (1.2 billion), including the modification of the DMTO tax ceiling and measures affecting tourist and parking taxes, are also raising taxes on households.

tab_Post2210ang

In 2016, the tax burden on business will fall by 5.9 billion (0.3 GDP point), mainly due to the second phase of the Responsibility Pact. Reductions in employer social security contributions on wages lying between 1.6 and 3.5 times the SMIC minimum wage (3.1 billion), the elimination of the corporate income tax (IS) surcharge (2.3 billion), the second allowance on the C3S tax base (1 billion), the implementation of the CICE tax credit (0.3 billion) and the additional tax reduction on investment (0.2 billion) have been only partially offset by tax increases on business, mainly with the hike on pension contribution rates (0.6 billion). However, as in previous years, the tax burden on households will increase in 2016 by 4.1 billion (0.2 GDP point), despite a further reduction in income tax (2 billion). The main measures increasing household taxation are similar to those in 2015, including environmental taxation, with the hike in the carbon tax (1.7 billion) and the CSPE tax (1.1 billion), measures on financing pensions (0.8 billion), and the expected increase in local taxation (1.1 billion). Note that the elimination of the PPE working tax credit in 2016 will mechanically lead to an increase in the household tax burden of 2 billion[4], but this will be offset by an equivalent amount for the new Prime d’activité working tax credit.

Ultimately, over the period 2010-2016, the household tax burden will increase by 66 billion euros (3.1 GDP points) and the burden on business by 8 billion (0.4 GDP point). The household tax burden will reach a historic high in 2016, at 28.2% of GDP. Conversely, the corporate tax burden in 2016 will amount to 16.4% of GDP, less than before the 2008 crisis. And in 2017, the last phase of the Responsibility Pact (with the complete elimination of the C3S tax and the reduction of IS corporate tax rates) and the expected CICE-related reimbursements should lead to cutting corporate taxation by about 10 billion euros, bringing the corporate tax burden down to the lowest point since the early 2000s.

The need to finance measures both to enhance corporate competitiveness and to reduce the structural deficit is placing the entire burden of the fiscal adjustment on households. Thus, the reduction in income tax in 2015 and 2016 will not offset the rise in other tax measures, most of which were approved in Finance Acts prior to 2015, and seems low in relation to the tax shock that has hit households since 2010. However, how these recent tax changes affect growth and the consequent impact on inequality will depend on the way business makes use of the new resources generated by the massive decline in its tax burden since 2014. These funds could lead to a rise in wages, employment, investment or lower prices or to higher dividends and a reduction in debt. Depending on the way business allocates these, the impact to be expected on the standard of living in France and on inequality will not of course be the same. An evaluation of the impact of these changes on the tax burden will surely lead to future studies and debate.

G1_Post2210ang

 


[1] The tax burden on households includes direct taxes (CSG, CRDS, IRPP, housing tax, etc.), indirect taxes (VAT, TICPE, CSPE, excise taxes, etc.), tax on capital (ISF, DMTG, property tax, DMTO, etc.), and salaried and self-employed social security contributions. The corporate tax burden includes the various taxes on production (value-added tax and corporate property tax (ex-TP), property tax, C3S tax, etc.), taxes on wages and labour, corporate income tax and employer social security contributions.

[2] For example, employer social contributions for pensions are analyzed here as a tax burden on business and not as deferred wages for households or a transfer of income from assets to retirees.

[3] In 2013, 61% of the tax burden was on households and 39% on business. However, over the 2010-2013 period, tax increases were borne 64% by households and 36% by business, which was more or less their respective weights in taxation.

[4] The PPE credit will be replaced by the Prime d’activité working tax credit, in an equivalent amount, which also encompasses the RSA activité tax credit; for accounting purposes the PPE is considered as a public expenditure. However, this new measure should not change household income macroeconomically, but only the nature of the transfer. Thus, excluding the elimination of the PPE, the tax burden on households would increase by 2.1 billion in 2016.

 




Croatia under the Excessive Deficit Procedure: which measures should be implemented?

By Sandrine Levasseur

How to put public finances on a good track when (almost) all measures regarding spending cuts and tax increases have been already exhausted? Croatia’s government has been seeking to solve this tricky problem since mid-November when an excessive deficit procedure (EDP) was launched against the country. Let us explain what an EDP means: the public deficit of Croatia currently exceeds 3% of GDP; the breach is neither exceptional nor temporary; consequently, the government of Croatia has to curb its public deficit in a lasting way.

On 28 January 2014, the EU Council will propose (1) the time limits within which Croatia must reduce its deficit below 3% of GDP and (2) the average annual amounts of deficit reduction during the period. Yet, (3) the EU council will invite formally the government of Croatia to propose concrete measures towards reducing the deficit-to-GDP ratio below 3%.

The problem facing the government of Croatia is not straightforward since the proposed measures should not further depress the economy. Currently, only modest signs of recovery are in sight in Croatia, and its unemployment rate stands at a high level (16.5%). The country is among the poorest EU members: its GDP per capita is 62% of that of the EU-28.

Briefing Paper n° 6 aims at proposing a list of measures that an EU country under EDP such as Croatia could envisage. For each measure, we present the main arguments “in favor of” it and “against” it in general terms. Then, we discuss the relevance of every measure for Croatia. Note that our list of measures is suitable for both advanced and less advanced EU countries. More generally, our list could be used for any country facing public finance problems and looking for solutions.

Three measures (out of seven) seem to us particularly relevant in the case of Croatia:

–          the use of service concession contracts;

–          the privatization of some state-owned enterprises;

–          the improvement of tax collection and compliance.

The first two measures are related to the need to restructure state-owned enterprises that are inefficient due to poor management. In particular, state-owned enterprises which are neither natural monopolies nor of strategic importance (i.e. in the tourism and agriculture sectors) should be privatized. Privatization of other state-owned enterprises should be envisaged more carefully, but not excluded. Croatia is the first country to join the EU with such a high share of state-owned enterprises (25%), and the slow pace of privatization has hindered growth. More privatizations will result in (long-run) gains even if causing (short-run) pains, in particular layoffs among the workforce. Service concession contracts are another way of restructuring the state-owned sectors. The impact on public finances is different, though. Services concession contracts provide a regular source of revenues for the government (through receipts of concession fees) and/or of savings (through lower payments of government subsidies). By contrast, immediate and potentially large amounts of cash can be obtained from the proceeds of privatization.

Recommending a restructuring of state-owned enterprises in Croatia is not a novelty. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Commission have repeatedly stated that the pace of privatization or service concessions should be accelerated to raise the efficiency of the economy. Currently, the government of Croatia is actively engaged in accelerating such a process, in particular for service concessions. A few recent concessions include Zagreb’s airport and Rijeka’s port, while motorways and Brijuni’s island have also been proposed to bidders.

Croatia’s citizens do not always support the restructuring process. To obtain greater public acceptance of privatization and service concessions, communication should be improved and intensified. In particular, the budgetary authorities should explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what the long-run benefits of their actions will be. Otherwise, the restructuring of state-owned enterprises will be perceived as a gift to the private sector. Last but not least, the process of privatization and service concessions should be more controlled to prevent misguided choices, abuse or conflicts of interest. That also means fighting corruption.

The improvement of tax collection is the third measure that we advocate to curb Croatia’s public deficit. According to the Institute of Public Finance, the cumulated uncollected tax revenues in Croatia would amount to HRK 40bn, which represents more than twice the projected public deficit for 2014 (HRK 19.3bn). Should the government be capable of collecting at least a portion, it would give a little breathing room to the public finances. In Croatia, increasing the tax collection means several interrelated things: fighting the grey economy (since unreported incomes are untaxed incomes) and prosecuting tax fraud (otherwise, rules and procedures are useless). Again, tighter control means fighting corruption.

By contrast, other measures such as wage cuts in the public sector or low corporate tax rates do not appear suitable to put the public finances of Croatia on track.

Further details can be found at http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/pdf/briefings/2014/briefing6.pdf .

 




America’s fiscal headache

By Christine Rifflart

Before next December 13th, the Budget Conference Committee must present the results of the discussions begun following the shutdown and debt crisis in October 2013. The objective of the negotiations is to enable Congress to approve the 2014 Budget, for which the fiscal year began on October 1 [1], and find an alternative to the automatic cuts in federal spending that are to take effect on 1 January 2014. An agreement does not seem out of reach. Even if sharp opposition between Republicans and Democrats remains, reason should prevail and the risk of a new budget crisis seems excluded. At worst a new Continuing Resolution [2] will be passed that allows institutions to continue to function and the arbitrary nature of automatic budget cuts in structural expenditure to guide government policy. At best, the negotiations will lead to reasoned cuts in expenditure, and even to increases in some revenues that will then curb the violence of the adjustment, a violence that is amplified by the ending of the exceptional measures to support income and activity that were enacted at the heart of the crisis.

There is little room for negotiation. In fiscal year 2013, the deficit for the entire public sector reached 7% of GDP (after 12.8% in fiscal year 2009), and the federal deficit came to 4.1% of GDP (after 9.8%). The federal debt currently comes to 72.7% of GDP, and is rising. Moreover, growth remains weak: 2.2% at an annual average since the 2010 recovery, with 1.8% expected in 2013, which in particular is insufficient to revitalize the job market. How then is it possible to come up with a budget policy to support growth in a context of fiscal austerity and deficit reduction while complying with the commitments previously made by Congress[3], in particular the Budget Control Act of 2011? Following the crisis concerning the federal debt ceiling in July 2011, on 2 August 2011 President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which conditioned any increase in the federal debt ceiling on a massive reduction in government spending over 10 years. In addition to the introduction of caps on discretionary spending [4], 1200 billion dollars in automatic cuts (sequestrations) in expenditures were planned for the period 2013 to 2021 based on a principle of parity between defense and non-defense budgets. A number of social programs (pension insurance, Medicaid, income guarantees, etc.) were exempted, while cuts to the Medicare program for the elderly were limited to 2%. In total, the cuts will apply to a little less than half of federal spending and will represent 109 billion per year in savings on the deficit, i.e. 0.6% of GDP.

For the 2014 fiscal year, according to the CBO the combination of these two measures (capped discretionary spending and automatic cuts in unprotected budgets) as well as the renewal of the amount of credits from 2013 to 2014 (i.e. a constant nominal budget) will lead to cuts in discretionary spending of 20 billion dollars that will have to be borne entirely by the Pentagon. On this basis, if the cuts are maintained, discretionary spending in the defense and non-defense budgets will have declined by 17% and 17.8%, respectively, in real terms between 2010 and 2014.

But in addition to these brutal cuts, other programs, in particular those primarily intended for low-income households, will experience a reduction in their budget in 2014 because of the expiration of the exceptional measures they previously enjoyed. Thus, the program to extend unemployment benefits created on 30 June 2008 for unemployed people who had exhausted their rights (Emergency Unemployment Compensation) ends on 1 January 2014. In the absence of other plans, this will hit 4 million people.

This is also the case of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which had benefited under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 from additional funding that elapsed on 1 November. Yet 47.7 million beneficiaries (15% of the population) received food stamps this year. According to the CBPP, the 7% cut in the program’s funds should result in a decrease of 4 million in the number of beneficiaries.

Another example: the housing benefits for the 2.1 million families who cannot find decent housing will also be affected by the termination of the budget extensions introduced in 2009 and the automatic cuts. If the budget is not renewed, from 125,000 to 185,000 of the families receiving benefits at end 2012 will no longer receive aid at end 2014.

According to the information currently available, a minimum agreement on the Budget Conference Committee seems to be emerging. The cuts in the defense budget could be approved [5], while eventual increases in public utility charges would be used to fund budget extensions for some social programs and lighten the impact of the automatic cuts. Last April, President Obama presented his Draft 2014 Budget to Congress. At that time he proposed to remove the procedures for automatic cuts, to reduce the debt in the long term through an extensive fiscal reform, and in the shorter term to defer a portion of the 2014 budget cuts to fiscal years 2015 and 2016 in order to boost growth. The agreement, which is likely to be presented to Congress by 13 December, will undoubtedly not be this ambitious. Faced with Republican (the majority in the House of Representatives) partisans of additional savings, the Democrats (the majority in the Senate) will find it difficult to defend an increase in public spending in 2014 and to adopt a fiscal policy that is less harmful to growth this year than it was in 2013.

 


[1] After not having been adopted by Congress, the 2014 budget has been financed since 16 October by a Continuing Resolution (see note 2) on the basis of the 2013 budget amounts. The Resolution is retroactive from the 1st day of the 2014 fiscal year, i.e. 1 October 2013, until 15 January 2014.

[2] A Continuing Resolution is a temporary resolution passed by Congress that is used to extend the appropriations made the previous fiscal year to the current fiscal year, while waiting for new measures to be approved.

[3] According to the CBPP, if all the deficit reduction measures adopted since 2010 in the 2011 Budget, the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 are taken into account, the cumulative impact on the deficit would be 4000 billion over the period 2014-2023, i.e. the equivalent of 24% of 2013 GDP.

[4] Discretionary spending (33% of federal spending) is spending for which the budgets are voted on an annual basis, unlike mandatory spending (61%), which is based on programs covered by prior law. The spending side of the government’s fiscal policy rests mainly on changes in discretionary spending, which are structural expenditure.

[5] Expenditure related to defense had already fallen by 13.1% in real terms between Q3 2010 and Q3 2013.

 




Higher taxes – a solution to the crisis?

By Mario Amendola, Jean-Luc Gaffard and Fabrizio Patriarca

This question, which may seem provocative, is worth asking provided that consideration is given both to the full dimensions of the crisis, and not just its financial aspects, as well as to the assumptions needed to make this a credible scenario. In the perspective discussed here, if tax hikes are to play a role, it would not be as part of a fiscal adjustment intended to restore public accounts worsened by the crisis, but rather with the aim of maintaining or restoring a level of productive spending that was altered by increasing inequality. Furthermore, everything would depend on the nature of both the taxation and the government spending.

Everyone agrees today that rising inequality, particularly in the United States, has had an influence on the course of events. The indebtedness of the least affluent households merely delayed a fall in aggregate demand. The realization that these households were insolvent is what triggered the crisis. Furthermore, there is no solution in the medium or long term without deleveraging both households and business. The role of the public authorities is to assist this. But they can do this only by taking decisions that wind up increasing the public debt. Public debt is thus substituted for private debt. The debt-financed public deficit also needs to be stretched out until consumers and business have been able to get back to a balanced financial position enabling them to raise their level of consumption and investment. This scenario is, however, running up against the potential insolvency of the states, a situation that is particularly aggravated in the euro zone. It does not actually explain what are the sources for a recovery in consumption and investment due to a failure to relate this to the implications of rising inequality in regards to the distribution of demand for productive and non-productive activities.

Recognizing the weight of inequality means, of course, recognizing that there is a problem with demand, but it also requires recognizing the heterogeneity of consumers and the non-homothetic nature of individual preferences. The rise in inequality is most of all changing the structure of demand. Some would say this is at the expense of goods consumed primarily by the mass of workers, to the benefit of luxury goods, while others would say at the expense of productive assets and to the benefit of existing financial and real estate assets.

The following mechanism might be at work. The richest households have excess savings that they devote, on the one hand, to the purchase of luxury goods and assets on the financial and real estate markets, and, on the other hand, to loans to less affluent households channelled through financial intermediaries. The rise in inequality thus has two combined effects: pushing up the price of assets purchased by the more affluent, and raising the level of indebtedness of the less affluent. The first effect supports the second by allowing the loans granted to rely on the increasing value of the assets pledged (the “collateral”).

Based on the assumption that public spending is a productive expenditure – it fuels demand for goods and services from the productive sector – an increase in public debt would support aggregate demand and stem the recession. However, in the medium term, interest charges could make it difficult to sustain the public debt with – and this is key – a need to reduce public spending before there is a significant recovery in private spending. The substitution of public debt for private debt shifts the problem, without solving it.

One possible alternative might be to tax the income of the wealthiest households. Still on the assumption that public spending is directed at the productive sector, this kind of taxation would ensure a redistribution of income, with as a corollary a reconfiguration of the structure of demand in favour of productive activities. Another assumption would also be necessary: that the additional taxes are actually paid by households that use a significant portion of their savings for the purchase of non-productive assets. In this situation, the objective would not be to raise taxes to absorb the public deficit in the hope that an economic recovery would make it possible to reduce them later, but rather to make better use of taxation as a tool for redistribution. While the tax burden would indeed increase, the point is to tax incomes that, in large part, consist of rents that go to unproductive consumption.

The hypotheses used here are somewhat uncertain due to the nature of public expenditure and revenue. Some public expenditure is unproductive, and it is difficult to distinguish what is productive from what isn’t. The tax increases would affect different categories of taxpayers without actually discriminating between them according to the structure of their spending.

Furthermore, our purpose here is not to set out a credible solution that can be applied immediately. The point is to highlight the illusory nature of all-embracing solutions, whether this is a matter of generalized austerity, involving tax increases that wind up weighing down household and business spending, or the prolonged maintenance of public debt, which merely replaces private debt without affecting the structure of demand. So, following this analytical digression, this points to the conclusion that the effective implementation of a redistribution mechanism that could lead to an increase in potential output requires a reform of the state that affects both the orientation of public spending and the structure of taxation, all of which requires time and foresight, not to speak of political courage.

… See Amendola, M., J.-L. Gaffard and F. Patriarca (2013), “Inequality, debt and taxation: the perverse relation between the productive and the non-productive assets of the economy”, OFCE Working Paper No. 2013-21.

 




What minimum wage for Germany?

By Odile Chagny and Sabine Le Bayon

The campaign for the parliamentary elections taking place on 22 September in Germany has engendered a broad debate among all political forces about the consolidation of the welfare state. The SPD programme highlights the concept of social justice, while in its programme the CDU has taken up several of the SPD’s main themes in the field of social welfare. The role of the welfare state has never been more central to a general election campaign since 2002. Despite this, the concern is not to move towards expanding the welfare state but the need for better quality in the welfare state, by correcting some of the negative consequences of Agenda 2010 [1]. The fight against poverty at more advanced ages (through a revaluation of family benefits for older mothers and the introduction of a contributory minimum), the re-regulation of certain types of work (temporary) and the need to strengthen the minimum wage are all clearly reflected  in the programmes of both the CDU and the SPD. Even the FDP, traditionally hostile to any notion of a ​​minimum wage, has incorporated in its election platform the need for “adequate pay, even at the bottom of the wage scale”. However, behind this apparent unity, the way such a minimum wage would work varies greatly between the parties.

The weakening of the collective bargaining system

In a country where there is no statutory national minimum wage, pay scales are negotiated at the regional or national level by the social partners in each business sector. But the decline in the share of employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement (53% in 2012 in the old Länder, 36% in the new Länder, against, respectively, 70% and 56% in 1996), the weakening of the trade unions and the development of atypical forms of employment, particularly since the Hartz reforms, have led to an increase in the proportion of people earning a low wage, which is calling into question the protective role of the collective bargaining system for an entire segment of the population. In 2010, the share of low-wage workers [2] was 22.2% in Germany and 6.1% in France. The majority of the 8.1 million employees concerned (Kalina and Weinkopf, 2013) work full-time (45%), one-quarter occupy part-time jobs subject to social security contributions, and 30% are employed in “mini-jobs”. The range of workers earning a low wage (less than 9.14 euros [3]) is broad: 1.8 million receive less than 5 euros per hour, 2.6 million between 5 and 7 euros, and 2.5 million between 7 and 8.50 euros.

The debate over the introduction of a statutory minimum wage dates back to the 1990s. For a long time, however, this was confined to a few sectors, construction in particular, based on a rationale of dealing with wage competition from businesses in the new Member States of the European Union, who sent their employees to Germany under pay conditions that were much below those provided for by collective bargaining. It was not until the mid-2000s that the first joint trade union call for a national minimum hourly wage (7.5 euros per hour) was finally made ​​by the DGB (the German confederation of trade unions) and that concerns over income support gradually came to outweigh concerns over wage dumping. This level was upgraded to 8.5 euros as of May 2010.

SPD and CDU/CSU/FDP: Two different visions of the minimum wage

While all the major parties put forward a desire to establish a minimum wage, there is not much consensus about the practical arrangements.

The SPD is proposing the introduction of a statutory minimum wage of 8.5 euros per hour (gross), which would apply to all employees, regardless of the minimum wage agreed for any particular sector. The point is, as was noted by the SPD candidate, Peer Steinbrück, during a debate he had with Angela Merkel in early September, to put an end to the “patchwork of minimum wages that exists from sector to sector and region to region”. Some 6.9 million people would see their hourly wage revalued (Kalina and Weinkopf, 2013) by 30% on average and by over 80% for the 1.8 million employees earning less than 5 euros per hour. About one-fifth of employees would be affected, more than half of whom have a “normal” job (subject to social security contributions). This would result in large-scale shocks both to income (for households) and to competitiveness (for companies), and would pose a real challenge to the low-wage economy that now characterizes certain sectors (agriculture, food, retail, hotel and catering, security and cleaning, etc.).

Because of this, the issue of the minimum wage is inseparable from the future of “mini-jobs”, the 7 million posts that pay less than 450 euros per month (400 euros prior to April 2013), which are exempt from employee social charges and income tax and which give virtually no access to social rights. In the case of the introduction of a national minimum wage of 8.5 euros per hour, these employees would represent nearly 40% of those whose wages would be revalued.

It should not be forgotten that one of the key measures of the first SPD-Green government led by Schröder was in 1999 to severely restrict the growth of “mini-jobs”, which were charged with 1) promoting the casualization of employment by replacing normal jobs that are subject to social charges, and 2) not offering social security coverage. Three years later, the Hartz Commission proposed facilitating the recourse to mini-jobs so as to develop sectors with low-skilled work.

Numerous studies have recently revealed blatant violations of labour law (lack of compliance with regulations on sick leave, on paid holidays, etc.) and unacceptably low hourly wages in these jobs (Bäcker and Neuffer 2012 [4], Bundesministerium für Familie, 2012). It is therefore not surprising that all the major parties (except the FDP) have included in their election manifestoes a commitment to reforming “mini-jobs”. But whereas the CDU is only targeting violations of labour law, the SPD programme goes further. The introduction of a minimum wage of 8.5 euros (gross) per hour would in effect limit companies’ interest in making use of “mini-jobs”. Furthermore, given the monthly ceiling on the maximum payment for “mini-jobs”, setting a wage of 8.5 euros per hour would amount to introducing a time limit on these jobs of about 13 hours per week. This would not be far from the limit of 15 hours per week that was suppressed by Hartz Law II in 2003 … as part of Agenda 2010 [5]. More generally, the entire political economy underlying these jobs would be called into question, as their rationale is to provide extra compensation that is exempt from social security contributions for employees in sectors with low minimum wages.

The CDU proposal on the minimum wage aims both at facilitating the extension of existing agreements (that is to say, to reform the process by which a collective agreement becomes mandatory for all the companies in the sector in question) and at requiring sectors without a collective agreement to set a minimum wage. A desire to secure protection against wage competition from companies that do not adhere to collective agreements and from East European companies who post their employees in Germany [6] has led several sectors to resort to these extension procedures in recent years. However, while an extension like this is virtually automatic in France, this is far from the case in Germany, even though the procedure was simplified in 2009. The CDU therefore proposes a “least burdensome approach”, that is to say, government intervention only in cases where the social partners have failed. The aim is to deal with situations where there is an “agreement vacuum” and allow a maximum number of employees to be paid according to collectively agreed minimum wages, while enabling the social partners to fix the level, since the CDU believes that minimum wage differentials help to take into account the diversity of regional and sectoral situations.

The CDU, which is unlikely to be able to govern alone in the next Parliament, has not gone farther than this for the time being, pending the outcome of the elections. Depending on which party it will govern with, the decisions about how low wages are regulated can differ greatly.

Here it is worth summarizing the numerous limitations of the current arrangements for the State’s extension procedure, which set the context for the CDU’s proposal:

  • – When the same sector has a number of different collective bargaining agreements, the extension procedure becomes more difficult, as it is necessary to determine which one is most representative and which ones could be controversial. This is what happened in the postal sector, where two competing collective bargaining agreements co-existed: one covering employees of Deutsche Post, the former monopoly in the sector, and the other covering employees of competitors for whom minimum wages were much lower. The government decided to extend the agreement signed in Deutsche Post to the entire sector, but the competitors complained, and the extension procedure was overturned by the Berlin Court [7].
  • – Negotiations on a sector’s minimum wages are renewed regularly (every six months or every one or more years). But when renegotiation fails, several months may elapse during which no minimum is in effect, and employers have sometimes seized the opportunity to hire employees at wages that are 30% below the previous minimum. This is what happened for instance in late 2009 in the industrial cleaning business (Bosch and Weinkopf 2012).
  • – The minimum in a sector can vary greatly, and some of them do not protect workers against the risk of poverty. Thus, according to data from the WSI-Tarifarchiv (March 2013), 11% of collective agreements in late 2012 provided for a minimum of less than 8.50 euros, the threshold proposed by the SPD as the statutory minimum wage, which is below the threshold for a “low wage” (9.14 euros).

The impact of the proposals of the various parties on changes in employment is difficult to estimate from studies conducted recently in Germany (Bosch and Weinkopf 2012), if only because the studies have focused on the introduction of minimum wages in isolated sectors, covering only a limited proportion of employees. This would not be comparable to the introduction of an industry-wide minimum wage that affected at least a quarter of employees, that was not differentiated, or even with the generalization of collectively agreed minimums. The goal is now for the maximum of employees to receive a “decent” income, even if the level of the latter differs depending on the programme. It is also to curtail certain atypical forms of employment. Notably, in a number of sectors the studies conducted show that the introduction of a minimum wage leads to a change in the structure of employment, with fewer “mini-jobs” and more “normal” jobs (subject to social security contributions), due to the regular checks conducted to ensure compliance with the minimum wages in the companies. Whatever the election results, the measures adopted will in any case point in the direction of correcting the most egregious injustices in terms of compensation, especially with respect to “mini-jobs”.


[1] Agenda 2010 includes all of the reforms implemented in Germany by the SPD-Green coalition between 2003 and 2005, which focused on labour market reform (called the Hartz reforms) (for more on this, see e.g. Hege 2012, Chagny 2008).

[2] These are employees receiving less than 2/3 of the median gross hourly wage.

[3] In 2011, the median gross hourly wage in Germany was 13.7 euros.

[4] “Von der Sonderregelung zur Beschäftigungsnorm : Minijobs im deutschen Sozialstaat” [On special employment standards: Mini-jobs in the German welfare state], WSI Mitteilungen 1/2012.

[5] Not to mention the fact that as a result it would be necessary to completely revamp the support for low-wage workers provided by exemptions on employee social charges.

[6] When companies from a Member State send their workers to another State, they are required to meet the minimum standards (working time, wages). The posting of workers has been governed by a 1996 EU Directive. These postings, which are growing in number, are posing a number of problems (social dumping, unfair competition, deterioration in working conditions) (Metis 2013).

[7] For further information, see: “Vrais et faux enjeux de la controverse sur les salaires minima légaux en RFA” [True and false issues in the controversy over the statutory minimum wage in the RFA], Karl Brenke, Regards sur l’économie allemande, no. 94, 2009.

 




Pensions: the Moreau report’s poor compromise

By Henri Sterdyniak

Under pressure from the financial markets and Europe’s institutions, the government felt obliged to present a new pension reform in 2013. However, reducing the level of pensions should not now be a priority for French economic policy: it is much more urgent to re-establish satisfactory growth, reform the euro zone’s macroeconomic strategy, and give a new boost to France’s industrial policy as part of an ecological transition. Establishing a committee of senior officials and experts is a common practice that is used these days to depoliticize economic and social choices and distance them from democratic debate. In this respect, the Moreau report, released on 14 June 2013, seems like a bad compromise. Although it does not call into question the public pension system, it weakens it and does not give itself the means to ensure the system’s social viability.

Do the social security accounts have to be balanced during a depression?

The deficit in the pension schemes in 2013 was mainly due to the depth of the recession, which has reduced the level of employment by about 5%, causing a loss of about 12 billion euros in funding for the pension schemes. The central objective of Europe’s economic policy should be to recover the jobs lost. Unfortunately, the Moreau report proposes continuing the strategy of a race to the bottom that is being implemented in Europe and France: “the pension schemes must contribute to restoring the public accounts and to France’s international credibility” (page 82). The report forgets that lower pensions lead to a decline in consumption, and thus in GDP, and to lower tax revenues and social security contributions, especially since all the euro zone countries are doing the same thing.

The report recommends reducing the deficit in the pension system relatively quickly by increasing the taxes paid by retirees. It adopts several well-known proposals uncritically. It would align the rates of pensioners’ CSG wealth tax with those of the employed. At one time, unlike employees, pensioners did not pay health insurance contributions. They have been hit by the establishment and then increase in the CSG tax. They already pay an additional contribution of 1% on their supplementary pensions. They are suffering from the retreat of the universal health scheme in favour of top-up health insurance. Increasing their CSG rate from 6.6% to 7.5% – the same as for employees – would bring in 1.8 billion euros. But shouldn’t it be necessary in exchange to eliminate the 1% contribution on supplementary pensions and make their top-up health insurance premiums (which are not paid by the companies) deductible?

Pensioners are entitled, like employees, to a 10% allowance for business expenses, but with a much lower ceiling. Even for employees, this allowance is much higher than actual business expenses; it offsets to some extent the possibilities of tax evasion by non-employees. The removal of the allowance would lead to 3.2 billion euros more in tax revenue to the state and a 1.8 billion reduction in certain benefits, linked to the amount of taxable income. Retirees would lose 2% of their purchasing power. But it is hard to see how this 5 billion would make its way into the coffers of the pension programmes.

Taxing pension family benefits (which would yield 0.9 billion) is certainly more justifiable, but again it is unclear how and why the product of this tax would go to the pension funds, especially as family benefits are the responsibility of the CNAF (National family benefits fund).

On the other hand, with regard to increasing contributions the report is very timid in at best proposing an increase of 0.1 percentage point per year for 4 years, i.e. ultimately 1.6 billion euros in employee contributions and 1.6 billion in employer contributions.

Most importantly, the report intends to increase the highest pensions (those who pay the full rate of CSG tax) only at the rate of inflation: 1.2 points for 3 years, thereby hitting them with a reduction of 3.6% in their purchasing power. Pensions subject to the reduced rate of CSG would lose only 1.5%. The lowest pensions would be spared. While this disparity in efforts may seem justified, the reliability of the public pension system would be seriously undermined. How can we be sure that this de-indexation will last only three years, that it will not become a more or less permanent management tool, which would especially hit older pensioners whose standard of living is already low? As the pensions received by a retiree are not all currently centralized, it is difficult to have the indexation of pensions vary in accordance with their level. The solution advocated by the report – to take into account the situation of the pensioner vis-à-vis the CSG – is hard to manage; making someone’s pension level depend on their family’s tax situation is just not justifiable. Pensions are a social right, a return on the contributions paid in, and not a tool for adjustments. How can we justify a 3.6% decline in the purchasing power of part of the population while GDP per capita is expected to continue to rise? Should the purchasing power of pensioners be cut when it has not benefited from an increase since 1983, even during periods of wage growth? Respect for the implicit social contract that underpins the pension system means that pensioners should make the same efforts as employees, no more, no less.

Furthermore, in times of economic recession the refrain that efforts need to be equitably distributed is dangerous. If everyone makes an effort by accepting less revenue and then reducing their expenditure, the inevitable result will be a drop in overall consumption, which, given spare production capacity, will be accompanied by a decline in investment and thus in GDP.

Guaranteeing a fall in pensions

In the medium term, the report’s main concern is to ensure a decline in the relative level of pensions. Indeed, because of the Balladur reform, since 1993 wages recognized in the general pension scheme have been re-valued based on prices, and not on the average wage. The replacement rate (the ratio of the first pension payment to final salary) falls in line with strong increases in the average wage: at one time the pension system’s maximum replacement rate was 50%, but this drops to 41.5% if real wages rise by 1.5% per year, but only to 47% if they rise by 0.5% per year. The mechanism introduced will lead to lowering the average level of pensions by 31% if the real wage increases by 1.5% per year, by 12% if it grows by 0.5% per year or by 0% if it stagnates. However, in recent years, wages have been rising by only 0.5% per year. The relative level of pensions might then recover. It is necessary therefore to increase wages to reduce the relative level of pensions.

The committee of experts gathered around Mrs. Moreau have therefore made two alternative proposals:

  • – Either the wages used will be re-valued only as: price + (real wages less 1.5%), which means that, regardless of the wage increase, the maximum replacement rate for general pensions would fall to 41.5%. The relative decline in pensions would therefore be definitively consolidated. On the technical side, the increase in wages recorded will become a tool for adjustment, whereas, objectively, it should be used to calculate the average wage over the career; the oldest wages would be sharply devalued. However, the report acknowledges (page 107) that the current level of pensions corresponds to parity in living standards between active employees and pensioners, and that the proposed change would lead eventually to lowering the standard of living for retirees by 13%. Nevertheless, it considers that “this development is acceptable”. Is this a judgment that should be made by the experts or by the citizens? Moreover, it neglects that this loss would come on top of the impact of the tax reforms and de-indexation that have also been recommended.
  • – Or, every year a committee of experts would propose a reduction in the level of the pensions to be paid based on a demographic factor that would ensure the system is balanced. In addition to the fact that this would be another blow to democracy (isn’t it up to the citizens to arbitrate between pension levels and contribution rates?) and to social democracy (the social partners would merely be consulted), and employees would have no guarantee of the future level of their pension, especially given the memory of the precedent set by the appointment of an expert group for the minimum wage (the SMIC), which was fiercely opposed to any increase.

Lengthening the contributions period

The Moreau report calls for further lengthening the period of contribution payments required based on the principles of the 2003 Act (extending the contribution period by two years for every three year increase in life expectancy at age 60). The required contribution period would then be 42 years for the 1962 cohort (2024), 43 years for the 1975 cohort (2037), and 44 years for the 1989 cohort (in 2051). As the average age when vesting begins is currently 22 years, this would lead to an average retirement age of 65 in 2037 and 66 in 2051. This announcement is certainly designed to reassure the European Commission and the financial markets, but it leads above all to worrying the younger generations and reinforcing their fear that they will never be able to retire.

Is it really necessary to announce a decision for the next 25 years without knowing what the situation will be in 2037 or 2051 with respect to the labour market, job needs, social desires or environmental constraints? Eventually, like all the developed countries France cannot escape the need to revise its growth model. Is it really necessary to do everything possible to increase production and private sector employment at a time when ecological constraints should be pushing us to decrease material output? Maintaining the possibility of a period of active retirement in good health is a reasonable use of productivity gains. Reform should not go beyond a retirement age of 62 years and a required contribution period of 42 years. So if the “long career” approach is maintained, people who start work at age 18 can retire at 60, and those who start at age 23 will stay on until 65. But working conditions and career development programmes need to be overhauled so that everyone can actually stay in work until those ages. This also implies that young people seeking their first job receive unemployment benefits, and that the youthful years of precarious employment are validated.

Taking the arduous character of work into account

The convergence of public, supplementary and private pension programmes likewise involves taking into account how arduous jobs are, by distinguishing between professions that are difficult to exercise after a certain age, meaning some kind of mid-term conversion is necessary, and jobs that are too tough, which can reduce life expectancy and thus should be phased out. For those who still have to do such jobs, periods of heavy work should give rise to possible bonus contribution periods and reductions in the age requirements. Common criteria should be applied in all the pension systems. In offering only one year’s bonus for 30 years of hard labor, the Moreau report does not go far enough. This is almost insulting and makes it impossible to open up negotiations on a plan to align the different systems.

What is to be done?

Whereas the COR report declared only a limited deficit (1% of GDP in 2040), the Moreau report proposes inflicting a triple penalty on future pensioners: de-indexation, a lower guaranteed replacement rate and the automatic extension of the contributions period required. This is no way to reassure the young generations or to highlight the advantages of the old-age pension system.

Pension reform is not a priority for the year 2013. In the short term, concern should be focused not on the financial imbalances in the regimes induced by the crisis but mainly on getting out of the depression. A strategy of a race to the bottom economically and socially, which is what de-indexation would lead to, must be avoided.

In the medium term, in order to convince young people that they will indeed enjoy a satisfying retirement, the goal should be to stabilize the pension / retirement ratio at close to its current level. The State and the unions must agree on target levels for the net replacement rate for normal careers: 85% for the minimum wage level; 75% for below the social security ceiling (3000 euros per month); and 50% for one to two times that ceiling.

To guarantee the pay-as-you-go pension system, the government and the unions must state clearly that a gradual increase in contributions will be required to bring the system into equilibrium, if necessary, once a strategy of extending the length of careers has been implemented at the company level that corresponds to the state of the labour market and actual workforce needs.




A fiscal policy to promote structural reform – lessons from the German case

By Eric Heyer

“France should copy Germany’s reforms to thrive”, Gerhard Schröder entitled an opinion piece in the Financial Times on 5 June 2013. As for the European Commission (EC), its latest annual recommendations to the Member states, released on 29 May, seem to take a step back from its strategy of a rapid and synchronized return to balancing the public finances, which has been in place since 2010. The EU executive’s priority now seems to be implementation of structural reforms of the labour and services markets in the euro zone countries. These countries will of course continue to consolidate their public finances, but the EC has given them an extra year or two to do this. While, for example, France will further consolidate its accounts over the coming two years (the fiscal effort demanded of the French government by the EC comes to 0.8 percent of GDP, or 16 billion euros per year), it has been given another two years to bring its deficit below 3% of GDP (2015 instead of 2013). This change in course – or at least in tone – by the EC, which had emphasized the enactment of extreme austerity reforms, should be welcomed. However, it is important to consider whether the new environment, in particular the fiscal situation, will be favourable enough to ensure that the structural reforms are effective. An examination of the economic context in which Germany introduced its reforms in the early 2000s, which became a benchmark for the countries of southern Europe, provides some important lessons. While the purpose here is not to go into these reforms in depth, it is nevertheless useful to remember that they were enacted while the German economy had a substantial trade deficit (‑1.8 percent of GDP in 2000 against a surplus of 1.4 percent for France at that same time) and was considered a “low achiever” in Europe. These reforms led to a significant reduction in the share of wages in value added, boosting the margins of German business, and helped to quickly restore the competitiveness of the German economy: by 2005, Germany was once again generating a large trade surplus while France ran a deficit for the first time since 1991. The non-cooperative character of the the euro zone (OFCE, 2006) and the steep increases in Germany in poverty – (Heyer, 2012) and Figure 1 – and in wealth inequality (de Grauwe et Yi, 2013) were the hidden fruit of this strategy. Europe’s “low achievers” today are the southern European countries, and the pressure to take steps to boost competitiveness has shifted from Germany to France, Italy and Spain. Despite this parallel, the question remains: is the economic environment similar today? Figures 1 and 2 summarize the economic situation in Germany at the time the structural reforms were implemented. Two main points stand out:

  1. These reforms were carried out in a context of strong global growth: the world experienced average growth of over 4.7% per year in 2003-2006 (Figure 1).  By comparison, the figure for growth is likely to be less than 3% over the next two years;
  2. In addition, the fiscal situation of the German economy in the early 2000s was not good: in 2001, the general government deficit for Germany exceeded 3%, and came close to 4% in 2002, the year before the enactment of the first Hartz reform. Government debt then exceeded the threshold of 60% of GDP allowed by the Maastricht Treaty for the first time. Despite this poor fiscal performance – with public debt approaching 70% in 2005 – it is interesting to note that the German government continued to maintain a highly expansionary fiscal policy for as long as the reforms had not been completed: in the period 2003-2006, the fiscal impulse was positive at on average 0.7 GDP point each year (Figure 2). Thus, during this period the German government supported its structural reforms with a highly accommodative fiscal policy.

Thus not only was the structural reform of the labour market conducted under Schröder implemented in a very favourable economic environment (strong global growth and a strategy that differed from the other European countries), but it was also accompanied by a particularly accommodative fiscal policy, given in particular the poor state of Germany’s public finances. This situation differs greatly from contemporary conditions:

  1. Global growth is likely to be under 3% over the coming two years;
  2. The EC is asking a large number of European countries to implement the same structural reforms simultaneously, which in a highly integrated euro zone limits their effectiveness; and
  3. Despite the extra time being granted for deficit reduction, fiscal policy will remain very tight: as is indicated in Table 1, the fiscal impulses for France and Spain will still be very negative (-0.8 GDP point per year) as the structural reforms in these countries are being implemented.

So while the pressure to boost the competitiveness of the countries of southern Europe is similar to that facing Germany in the early 2000s, the external environment is less favourable and there is greater pressure to reduce the public debt. On this last point, the German example teaches us that it is difficult to juggle structural reforms to boost business competitiveness with efforts to reduce the public debt.




Monetary policy and property booms: dealing with the heterogeneity of the euro zone

By Christophe Blot and Fabien Labondance

The transmission of monetary policy to economic activity and inflation takes place through various channels whose role and importance depend largely on the structural characteristics of an economy. The dynamics of credit and property prices are at the heart of this process. There are multiple sources of heterogeneity between the countries of the euro zone, which raises questions about the effectiveness of monetary policy but also about the means to be used to reduce this heterogeneity.

The possible sources of heterogeneity between countries include the degree of concentration of the banking systems (i.e. more or fewer banks, and therefore more or less competition), the financing arrangements (i.e. fixed or variable rates), the maturity of household loans, their levels of debt, the proportion of households renting, and the costs of transactions on the housing market. The share of floating rate loans perfectly reflects these heterogeneities, as it is 91% in Spain, 67% in Ireland and 15% in Germany. In these conditions, the common monetary policy of the European Central Bank (ECB) has asymmetric effects on the euro zone countries, as is evidenced by the divergences in property prices in these countries. These asymmetries will then affect GDP growth, a phenomenon that has been observed both “before” and “after” the crisis. These issues are the subject of an article that we published in the OFCE’s Ville et Logement (Housing and the City) issue. We evaluated heterogeneity in the transmission of monetary policy to property prices in the euro zone by explicitly distinguishing two steps in the transmission channel, with each step potentially reflecting different sources of heterogeneity. The first describes the impact of the interest rates controlled by the ECB on the rates charged for property loans by the banks in each euro zone country. The second step involves the differentiated impact of these bank rates on property prices.

Our results confirm the existence of divergences in the transmission of monetary policy in the euro zone. Thus, for a constant interest rate set by the ECB at 2%, as was the case between 2003 and 2005, the estimates made ​​during the period preceding the crisis suggest that the long-term equilibrium rate applied respectively by Spanish banks and Irish banks would be 3.2% and 3.3%. In comparison, the equivalent rate in Germany would be 4.3%. Moreover, the higher rates in Spain and Ireland amplify this gap in nominal rates. We then show that the impact on bank rates of changes in the ECB’s key rate is, before the crisis, stronger in Spain and Ireland than it is in Germany (figure), which is related to differences in the share of loans made at floating rates in these countries. It should be noted that the transmission of monetary policy was severely disrupted during the crisis. The banks did not necessarily adjust supply and demand for credit by changing rates, but by tightening the conditions for granting loans. [1] Furthermore, estimates of the relationship between the rates charged by banks and property prices suggest a high degree of heterogeneity within the euro zone. These various findings thus help to explain, at least partially, the divergences seen in property prices within the euro zone. The period during which the rate set by the ECB was low helped fuel the housing boom in Spain and Ireland. The tightening of monetary policy that took place after 2005 would also explain the more rapid adjustment in property prices observed in these two countries. Our estimates also suggest that property prices in these two countries are very sensitive to changes in economic and population growth. Property cycles cannot therefore be reduced to the effect of monetary policy.

To the extent that the recent crisis has its roots in the macroeconomic imbalances that developed in the euro zone, it is essential for the proper functioning of the European Union to reduce the sources of heterogeneity between the Member states. However, this is not necessarily the responsibility of monetary policy. First, it is not certain that the instrument of monetary policy, short-term interest rates, is the right tool to curb the development of financial bubbles. And second, the ECB conducts monetary policy for the euro zone as a whole by setting a single interest rate, which does not permit it to take into account the heterogeneities that characterize the Union. What is needed is to encourage the convergence of the banking and financial systems. In this respect, although the proposed banking union still raises many problems (see Maylis Avaro and Henri Sterdyniak), it may reduce heterogeneity. Another effective way to reduce asymmetry in the transmission of monetary policy is through the implementation of a centralized supervisory policy that the ECB could oversee. This would make it possible to strengthen the resilience of the financial system by adopting a means of regulating banking credit that could take into account the situation in each country in order to avoid the development of the bubbles that pose a threat to the countries and the stability of the monetary union (see CAE report no. 96 for more details).


[1] Kremp and Sevestre (2012) emphasize that the reduction in borrowing volumes is not due simply to the rationing of the supply of credit but that the recessionary context has also led to a reduction in demand.