Emma Clancy – Eurozone’s permanent austerity based on failed ideology

This is the second of six articles in a series presenting portions of Emma Clancy’s report The Future of the Eurozone that BRAVE NEW EUROPE will be posting in the next weeks. In this  instalment Emma explains why centralised fiscal policy has failed the Eurozone and should be abandoned, restoring this power to national governments.

Emma Clancy works as a policy advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and the Panama Papers Committee of Inquiry.

This is an excerpt from the economic discussion document launched by MEP Matt Carthy on October 27, entitled The Future of the Eurozone. Download the full document for a referenced version

Cross-posted from Emma’s blog




BACK IN 1929 when the Wall Street crash hit, the response of then-US President Herbert Hoover was to restrict government spending – an action now almost universally acknowledged as having turned the stock market crash into the Great Depression.

The free-market ideology underpinning Hoover’s austerity policies held that an economy with high unemployment could return to full employment through market forces alone. Instead of boosting public spending, the government should do the reverse. By cutting government spending and increasing taxes, the government deficit would be reduced, which would restore market “confidence”. This restoration of confidence would lead to increased private investment, and the market would adjust itself to return to full employment.

The confidence fairy

The confidence theory was demonstrated back in 1929 to be incredibly damaging and to achieve precisely the opposite effect of what it aimed to achieve. The actual effect of implementing austerity in a period of economic downturn was to cause a contraction in the economy, thus weakening the economy further, causing tax revenues and national income to fall, and the deficit to increase. The contractionary impact of austerity policies during a downturn was explained by John Maynard Keynes during the 1930s, and Keynesian models have proved to be a reliable predictor of growth (or lack thereof) in the wake of the 2007-2008 crisis.

Countless books, academic studies and articles have outlined how the programmes imposed by the Troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – on the Eurozone’s “peripheral” economies since 2008 have exacerbated the crisis. In the decades before the global financial crisis, these same policies had caused the exact same devastating contractionary effects when imposed under the guise of “structural adjustment programs” by the IMF across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In 2011 at the height of the Eurozone crisis, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman memorably dismissed this theory as the “confidence fairy”. Two years later, commenting on the theory’s persistence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he added: “European leaders seem determined to learn nothing, which makes this more than a tragedy; it’s an outrage.” Fellow Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has dubbed the free-market fundamentalists’ obsession with reducing deficits as “deficit fetishism”, pointing out that “no serious macroeconomic model, not even those employed by the most neoliberal central banks, embraces this theory in the models they use to predict GDP”.

Europes lost decade

It is common for scholars to refer to the results of the IMF structural adjustment programmes from the 1970s-1990s in Latin America, Asia and Africa as having caused these continents “a lost decade” or “lost decades”. Europe has lost a decade but there is a danger that it may lose several more – not only because of the policy responses to the crisis but because of the actual structure of the Eurozone. The results of the European response to the crisis are damning. Three patterns are obvious: the Eurozone countries have in general fared far worse in terms in terms of recovery than countries outside of the common currency; the recovery within the Eurozone has been sharply asymmetrical, with divergence between strong and weak countries increasing; and there has been a significant rise in inequality across Europe.

Growth in the US and Britain has been weak since the crisis but it has far outpaced the Eurozone recovery. It is difficult to even use the word “recovery” to describe the Eurozone experience – only last year did Eurozone GDP reach its pre-crisis level. In June 2016, the Eurozone unemployment rate was still in the double figures at 10.1 per cent; while the EU-28 had unemployment of 7.7 per cent. But the unemployment figures in several of the crisis countries remains double the Eurozone average – in Greece by 2017 the unemployment rate was 21.7 per cent while at the same time in Spain the jobless rate was 17.8 per cent. The figures are masked by the huge levels of emigration that the crisis countries experienced as well as the fact that number of hours worked per worker has declined across the Eurozone.

While the Eurozone stagnated for a full decade following 2007, countries within the EU but outside the Eurozone had a GDP 8.1 per cent higher than in 2007 by 2015. The United States had a GDP almost 10 per cent higher in 2015 than in 2007. Over the same period, the Eurozone’s GDP grew by just 0.6 per cent.

In its Economic Forecast last autumn, the European Commission warned of a potential “vicious circle” as expectations of long-term low growth affect investment decisions, and that “the projected pace of GDP growth may not be sufficient to prevent the cyclical impact of the crisis from becoming permanent”.

The declining level of growth in the British economy since the Brexit vote means a “strong downward revision of euro area foreign demand”, while the “sizeable depreciation of sterling vis-à-vis the euro is expected to have an adverse direct impact on euro area exports to the UK”. Eurozone exports were forecast to decrease slightly this year and stagnate in 2018, while possible financial crashes in China or the US and the ongoing non-performing loan banking crisis in the Eurozone pose serious risks.

Despite these sober warnings, European leaders and the financial press have raucously celebrated the anemic growth in the Eurozone’s GDP in the first two quarters of this year, of 0.5 per cent and 0.6 per cent respectively – crucially, driven by a slow increase in domestic demand as opposed to export-led growth. But this celebration ignores the fact that in normal circumstances, these figures would be viewed as abysmal, and that global economic forces pose serious threats to this fragile recovery.

Predictably, these feeble shoots of growth are described as being the result of austerity policies by those who have claimed for the past 10 years that austerity will start to work any day now. A slightly recalibrated confidence theory has been proposed by a small number of economists associated with the neoliberal school of thought since the 2008 crisis – that of an “expansionary fiscal contraction”, with Harvard’s Alberto Alesina and Goldman Sachs’s Silvia Ardagna leading the charge with their joint paper in 2009. What they are actually recommending largely amounts to recovery through beggar-thy-neighbour competitive devaluations (or in the common currency, internal devaluation).

Stiglitz points out that these instances of economic recovery are actually cases where certain countries had “extraordinarily good luck” in that “just as they cut back on government spending, their neighbours started going through a boom, so increased exports to their neighbours more than filled the vacuum left by reduced government spending”. Several papers from the IMF itself have backed up this analysis.

A fiscal straitjacket

In 1992 the member states of the European Economic Community (EEC) signed up to the Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundation for the common currency. The Maastricht Treaty enshrined the so-called convergence criteria – a set of rules members and potential members of the common currency were obliged to follow. To join the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), states had to pledge to control inflation, and government debt and deficits, and commit to exchange rate stability and the convergence of interest rates. The blanket, one-size-fits-all fiscal rules in the criteria – that member states must keep public debt limited to 60 per cent of GDP and annual deficits to below 3 per cent of GDP – were proposed by Germany, based on its national Stability and Growth Pact.

The convergence criteria, as the term suggests, were aimed at achieving convergence among the diverse economies that were to form the Eurozone. The founders of the euro acknowledged the tendency for economic shocks to hit diverse economies asymmetrically in a monetary union.  Without convergence, a common currency won’t work – for example, with diverse economies the interest rate set by the ECB for the entire Eurozone may impact positively on one country but negatively on another country with different economic characteristics. Without convergence, it would be difficult if not impossible to ensure full employment and current account (external) balance among different economies at the same time.

There are many spillover effects that one economy can have on another in a monetary union – for example trade imbalances and internal devaluations – but the only one that the Maastricht Treaty focused on was members’ fiscal policy.

Governments facing an economic downturn have three main ways they can aim to restore the economy to full employment: to stimulate exports by devaluing their currency; to stimulate private investment and consumption by lowering interest rates; or to use tax-and-spending policies – increase spending or lower taxes. Membership of the Eurozone automatically rules out using the first two mechanisms, and the fiscal rules largely remove the third option from governments.

When a Eurozone member state experienced a downturn, its deficit would inevitably rise as a result of lower tax revenue and higher expenditure on social security. But when the convergence criteria kicked in, causing governments to cut spending or raise taxes, it would invariably worsen the downturn by dampening demand. Moreover, debt and deficits did not, and do not, cause economic crises. Ireland and Spain were running surpluses when they experienced a crisis, and both had low public debt.

The convergence criteria are purely ideological and economically unsound. But as the European Central Bank (ECB) was preparing to begin operating to control inflation and interest rates, Germany pushed for the adoption of an EU-wide Stability and Growth Pact in 1997, including non-Eurozone members, to enshrine the fiscal control aspects of Maastricht, and more generally to increase EU surveillance and control over member states’ national budgets.

Almost all EU member states have breached the rules at some point – during the recession only Luxembourg did not go over the 3 per cent deficit target. Fiscal contraction will exacerbate unemployment, but it may eventually restore a current external account balance – when demand for imports becomes so low as a result of the recession that exports catch up.

University of London Professor George Irvin has described German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence that government profligacy is at the root of the Eurozone crisis as betraying “near-total ignorance of how economies work”. “Budget balance for a national economy is fundamentally different from that of the household or the firm. Why? Because budgetary (or fiscal) balance is one of three interconnected savings balances for the national economy. The other two fundamental economic balances are the current external account balance… and the private sector savings-investment balance. If any one account is out of balance, an equal and opposite imbalance must exist for one or both of the remaining accounts,” he wrote.

Germany pushed for the fiscal rules to be tightened yet again in 2012 through the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which created the obligation for the convergence criteria targets to be inserted into the national law of the ratifying states.

The Fiscal Compact

In 2010, Germany proposed the reform of the Stability and Growth Pact to make it stricter, and “in return” pledged to support the creation of a Eurozone bailout fund that member states could draw upon if they were in dire straits – with strict fiscal conditions attached, of course. The reforms aimed at enforcing compliance of the Stability and Growth Pact known as the “Six-Pack” and “Two-Pack” of additional regulations and directives were adopted at EU level.

In 2012, an intergovernmental treaty – the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Growth – was signed by all EU Member States with the exception of Britain and the Czech Republic. (When Croatia joined the EU in 2013, it declined to sign.) The Treaty, known as the Fiscal Compact, incorporated the Stability and Growth Pact, the Six-Pack and Two-Pack requirements, and more. Its central principle is that member states’ budgets must be in balance or in surplus, which the Treaty defines as not exceeding 3 per cent of GDP. The structural deficit limits are set by the Commission on a country-by-country basis and must not exceed 0.5 per cent of GDP for states with debt-to-GDP ratios of more than the 60 per cent limit, and must not exceed one per cent of GDP for states within the debt levels.

The “debt-brake” rule is the convergence criteria rule that government debt cannot exceed 60 per cent of GDP. The Fiscal Compact enshrines the rule that members in excess of this limit are obliged to reduce their debt level above 60 per cent at an average of at least 5 per cent per year. The structural deficit rule – called the “balanced budget rule” – must be incorporated into the national law of signatory states under the Fiscal Compact. An “automatic correction mechanism”, which is to be established at member state level and kicks in when “significant deviation” from the balanced budget rule is observed, must also be incorporated into national law.

Irvin points out that Germany’s debt-brake cannot be good for other Eurozone countries, or even possible, for three reasons – that Germany’s exports to the Eurozone are by definition another member state’s imports; that there is insufficient global demand to sustain all Eurozone economies becoming net exporters like Germany; and that the public debt-brake completely ignores the problem of private debt, especially in the over-leveraged banking sector.

Despite the vast evidence that the Fiscal Compact rules are counterproductive and unenforceable, the European Commission has made a proposal to permanently enshrine these rules in EU law by mid-2019.

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