The impact of fiscal austerity on the Eurozone as a whole has been immense. In my recent Vox piece, I did a back of the envelope calculation which said that GDP in 2013 might be around 4% lower as a result of cuts in government consumption and investment alone. This seemed to accord with some model based exercises of the impact of austerity as a whole, but others gave larger numbers.
We now have another estimate, which can be thought of as a rather more thorough attempt to do what I did in the Vox article. This paper by Sebastian Gechert, Andrew Hughes Hallett and Ansgar Rannenberg uses multipliers and applies them to the fiscal changes that have occurred in the Eurozone from 2011. Apart from the later start date, the first difference compared to my back of the envelope calculation is that they include all fiscal changes, and not just government consumption and investment. As a large part of the fiscal consolidation in the Eurozone has involved reducing fiscal transfers, this is important.
The second, and more interesting, difference is that rather than pluck a multiplier out of the air, as I did, they use a meta analysis of empirical studies by Gechert that I have previously linked to. The studies on which this meta analysis is based are not ideal from my personal point of view (more on this later), but what it does show is that fiscal multipliers are larger in depressed economies. Applying these ‘meta multipliers’ to the Eurozone fiscal consolidation implies that GDP was 7.7% lower by 2013 as a result. These numbers are more in the ballpark of the Rannenberg et al paper that I have discussed before.
All these estimates point to huge losses, which monetary policy has neither been willing or able to counteract. Yet the speed at which those in charge of the Eurozone begin to realise the mistake that they have made is painfully slow. Take this recent Vox piece by Marco Buti and Nicolas Carnot. Thankfully they ignore all the Eurozone’s tortuous and sometimes contradictory rules, and just look at two numbers: a measure of ‘economic conditions’ (like the output gap), and a measure of the fiscal gap, which is the difference between the actual primary balance and what it needs to be to get debt falling gradually.
They argue that policy needs to balance the need to reduce both gaps. Looking at these two numbers, they conclude that Germany is overachieving on fiscal adjustment and has a need to increase activity, but although France and Spain also need to increase demand they have a long way to go to eliminate the fiscal gap, so this should dominate. The conclusion is that Germany should go for fiscal stimulus, but “moderate consolidation appears warranted in both France and Spain”. Overall “the Eurozone should conduct a close-to-neutral fiscal stance”.
Let’s deal with that last conclusion first. The mistake there is simple. When monetary policy is stuck at the Zero Lower Bound, it is crazy to balance the output gap with what is your main instrument for correcting that gap, which is fiscal policy. Getting the fiscal gap right is important in the longer term, but in the short term it is the means by which you get the output gap to zero. As the studies mentioned at the beginning of this post show, the current recession is the result of trying to correct the fiscal gap at completely the wrong time. The right policy is to get the output gap to zero, so interest rates can rise above the ZLB, and then you deal with the deficit. Readers of this blog and the blogs of others must be sick and tired of seeing us make this same point over and over again, but the logic has yet to get through to where it matters.
The same principles apply to countries within the Eurozone, except with an additional complication of within Eurozone competitiveness. If a country is too competitive relative to the rest of the Eurozone, it needs to run a positive output gap for a time to generate the inflation that will correct that position, and vice versa. For that reason Germany needs a large positive output gap at the moment (compared to an estimated actual negative gap), and therefore a much more expansionary fiscal policy - not because it is overachieving on debt adjustment. France and Spain now look roughly OK in terms of competitiveness relative to the average (see chart below, and assuming that entry rates in 2000 were appropriate), so there we need fiscal expansion to close the output gap.
So at both the aggregate and individual country level, the inappropriate bias towards fiscal contraction that caused huge losses in the Eurozone in the past continues to operate. Which means, unfortunately, that the needless waste of resources caused by austerity continues to get larger by the day.
Relative Unit Labour Costs, 2010=100, from OECD Economic Outlook