Who will pay the bill in Sicily?

by Augusto Hasman and Maurizio Iacopetta

 

Rumors of a Sicily’s possible default are in the air again. The employees of the Sicilian parliament did not receive their checks at the end of September.  Another possible default of Sicily made already the international headlines in July (see the New York Times 22/07/12) due to the contagion effects it could have had on other regions.  But in that occasion, the central Italian government prevented Sicily’s default by providing an immediate injection of liquidity in the order of 400 million euros.

Other Italian regions are in trouble. In recent months the provision of basic health care services has deteriorated; regions are renegotiating contracts with their creditors to obtain deadline extensions. The figures reported by Pierre de Gasquet in Les Echos of 02/10/2012, give a good idea of the deterioration of the Italian regional public finance over the last decade.

It will take a good deal of imagination for regional governments to come out of the impending budget crisis, not only in Italy but also in other  European countries that have difficulties in managing their public debts, such as Spain, Ireland and Greece.

In recent weeks we learned that some local politicians are endowed with a good deal of creativeness, but they hardly use it to find a solution to the budget crises.  The governor of the region Lazio –where Rome is located — resigned a few days ago in the midst of a political scandal due to revelations that members of the regional parliament funneled electoral funds to pay extravagant personal expenses, including car upgrades and luxury vacations.

Why don’t regional governments issue their own money to finance public expenditures? It may seem absurd that now that European countries have finally accepted a common currency, regional and possibly local governments might be tempted to create some sort of fiat money. But historically it would not be the first time that local monies emerge when the central government has its hands tight.

Argentina in the early 1990s (convertibility law n° 23.928, 27/03/1991) pegged the currency on a one-to-one basis with the U.S. dollar (See Anne-Laure Delatte’s article on this blog for a parallel between the Argentinean events and hypothetical scenarios for Greece.). For most of the decade, things seemed to be working well; the economy was growing at the impressive annual rate of almost 5.7%, notwithstanding (or perhaps thanks to) the fact that Argentina, in practice, gave up the monetary policy instrument. But by 1998, the load of public debt started to become unbearable.  Financing it by printing money was out of question. The IMF was called for help to prevent the panic of Argentinean savers.  It granted a loan of 40 thousands million dollars but it also asked the government to impose a severe austerity plan, which had, among many effects, that of depriving provinces under financial difficulties from the prospect of being rescued by the central government.

It was at this point, in 2001, that a number of provinces began to print their own money in order to pay wages and current expenses. (Krugman’s open editorial of ten years ago at the New York Times — Crying with Argentina, 01.01. 2002 — gives a fresh reading on the unfolding of the events). Fifteen out of twenty-two provinces ended up using newly issued interest-bearing notes, which earned the name of ‘quasi-money’. At the beginning, thanks to an agreement between provinces and large stores, quasi-money had a high level of acceptability. Indeed, competition led more and more stores to accept the quasi-money.  Local trade seemed to resuscitate. In August 2002, 5 thousands million pesos of quasi-money circulated side-by-side with 12 thousands million of (real) Argentinean pesos.

Interesting, although the case of Argentina seems very surprising, the academic literature has always been puzzled of why it does not happen more often. The question is why government non-interest bearing banknotes circulate side-by-side with government bonds that promise an interest. In principle the phenomenon defies an elementary no-arbitrage principle.

One of the first to pose the puzzle was Hicks in 1935 in a famous article by the title of ‘A suggestion for simplifying the theory of money’.  An answer to Hicks’ puzzle was offered by Bryant and Wallace (1980). Their argument is based on observation that private banks are not allowed to slice large denomination government bonds in small denomination banknotes. If banks could issue their own small denomination notes that are fully backed by large denomination government bonds, then, competition among banks would presumably drive the return on private banknotes in line with the return on bonds. If interest rates on bonds are positive, the argument goes, the demand for non-interest bearing money should then fall to zero.  For Bryant and Wallace only the legal restriction on intermediation would prevent this from happening.

But Makinen and Woodward (1986) report that, during the period from 1915 to 1927, French government treasury bonds circulated at a relatively small denomination of 100 Francs (roughly 50-60 euros of today). The bonds were issued with terms of 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year. These bonds were continuously available to all banks (including branches of the Bank of France), post offices, and numerous local offices of the Finance Ministry.  This historical episode casts some doubts on the legal hypothesis, for the Bank of France kept issuing Francs.

Why then in Argentina bonds emerged as money – albeit for a limited period? It seems to us that the key was the promise offered by the issuer to accept the regional bonds in settling a debt – typically a tax obligation. The rules on what the regions can and cannot do in Europe are different from country to country. In Italy for instance regions, provinces, and municipalities have been authorized to issue bonds by the law of ‘rationalization of public finance’, introduced in the first half of the 1990s (art. 32 of the law of 8.6.1990 n.142, for municipalities and provinces, and art.35, law 23.12.1994 n. 724). The law set several conditions for an administration to qualify to issue bonds. First, bonds can be issued only to finance investment projects. The law explicitly forbids the issue of bonds to finance current expenditures. Second, the issuer has to demonstrate a good history of balanced budgets. Third, the maturity of the bonds cannot be shorter than five years. Fourth, the bonds cannot go in direct competition with the central government bonds, namely cannot be offered a real return above the one offered by the central government for bonds with similar maturities. Fifth, the central government is not allowed to back-up bonds of the regions who, in turn, cannot take responsibility for the bonds issued by provinces or municipalities

Is it desirable to relax these conditions? Perhaps it is useful to see the end of the story in Argentina –not particularly that of a Hollywood movie. The acceptability of quasi-money outside the region that issued it was very low. More importantly, the central government did not allow tax payers to use quasi-money for their federal taxes.  Consequently, in a few months the de-facto exchange rate between the quasi-money and the national currency dropped from 1 to around 0.7 – it was somewhat higher for Buenos Aires quasi-money, for this was accepted in many other provinces.

At the beginning of 2002, a new government, presided by Eduardo Duhalde, decided to abandon  the convertibility law. As a result, the exchange rate of the pesos vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar dropped from one to four. During that year, the GDP declined 10.9%.

Having gained the power of printing money again, the central government allowed quasi-monies holders to convert them into the devalued national peso. The short run benefits evaporated soon. The recession along with the depreciation slashed the purchasing power of the working class. At the end of the crisis, the national product was about a quarter lower than its 1998 level, and the rate of unemployment shot up to 24%. It appears that issuing of local money delayed the collapse of the financial system, but it is unclear whether the temporary breath gained by local administrators that issued bonds made the subsequent recession less severe. The case of Argentina suggests, nevertheless, that a major relaxation of the current constraints of regional and municipal entities is not going to help solve how to guarantee the provision of health care service in the long run. Nonetheless, the current policy of cutting basic public services indiscriminately is the least imaginative of the solutions.  Alesina and Giavazzi in an open editorial published on Corriere della Sera on Sept 27, suggested that hospitals could charge health care users directly instead of being reimbursed by the regional authorities. By doing so, they argued, not only the quality of the service would improve, but regions would need fewer resources. Although this is food for thought, in the U.S. such a system generated a colossal profit making machine that contributed to the explosion of the health care costs. Similarly, Fitoussi and Saraceno (2008) argue that the spectacular gain in income of the last three decades in China did not go hand-in-hand with similar gains in life expectancy and quality of health care, because the government opted for a health care system based on out-of-pocket expenses.

The Argentinean experience tells us that local administrators in distressed regions of Europe are going   to lobby the government to give more freedom in managing their budget intertemporally – something that is already happening in Spain,  and is summarized in the London School of Economics blog by K. Basta . They are also probably going to make more intensive use of  ‘creative accounting’, so as  to prolong their serving time in office. But this will not be the solution. A major reassessment of the national government’s priorities in combination with a sensible monetary policy at the European level is the only way out. We badly need to free up resources to revitalize the public educational system and to maintain the overall good standard of public health care services.

References:

Alesina, A. and Giavazzi, F. “C’era una volta lo stato sociale”, http://www.pierferdinandocasini.it/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Cera-una-volta-lo-Stato-sociale.-Alberto-Alesina-Francesco-Giavazzi-Corriere-della-Sera.pdf

Basta, K., “Reducing Catalonia’s autonomy as a reaction to the fiscal crisis would only provide more fuel for secession-minded nationalists” http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2012/09/26/catalonia-autonomy-karlo-basta/

Bryant, J. and Wallace, N., 1980. “A Suggestion for Further Simplifying the Theory of Money”, Federal Reserve Bank Research Staff Report n. 62.

Delatte, A. L., “Quels sont les risques du retour à la drachme encourus par les Grecs ?” http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/blog/?p=2032

Donadio, R. “Sicily’s Fiscal Problems Threaten to Swamp Italy”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/world/europe/sicilys-fiscal-problems-threaten-to-swamp-italy.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Fitoussi, J. P. and Saraceno, F., 2008, “The Intergenerational Content of Social Spending: Health Care and Sustainable Growth in China“, Documents de Travail de l’OFCE 2008-27, Observatoire Francais des Conjonctures Economiques (OFCE).

Pierre de Gusquet, “Alerte rouge sur la crise des finances régionales en Italie”, Les Echos, 02/10/2010.

Hicks, J. 1935, “A Suggestion for Simplifying the Theory of Money”, Economica, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 5, pp. 1-19.

Krugman, P., “Crying with Argentina”, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/01/opinion/crying-with-argentina.html

Makinen, G. E. and Woodward, G. T., 1986.  « Some Anecdotal Evidence Relating to the Legal Restrictions Theory of the Demand for Money”, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 94, issue 2, pages 260-65.

 

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