Posts Tagged budgetary cuts
The Labour Party was congratulating itself yesterday on having joined with Tory rebels to defeat the Tory-led government by voting to cut the EU budget. In truth, this was sheer opportunism. While the two Eds (Miliband and Balls) may believe that supporting belt-tightening in Europe is good populist politics, in truth, Labour has shot itself in the foot.
Why? Because the vote was not about whether the British hate Europe—doubtless many do and will continue to rally round the Daily Mail. Rather, it’s a vote about the principle of adopting further deflationary policies.
By voting to cut the EU budget, Labour is aligning itself with budget cutters throughout the EU—in the main, centre-right parties. With euro-zone unemployment now above 11% (in some member-states above 25%!) and Europe headed for even deeper recession, any sensible progressive politician should be shouting out for co-ordinated fiscal expansion. What’s needed is the opposite of budget cutting—a far larger EU budget which could be used to reflate the economy and transfer resources towards the neediest regions.
Granted, under current arrangements, the EU budget is nearly useless as a vehicle for driving reflation. Bright economics-trained shadow ministers like Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna—even the Pro-EU Shadow Minister for Europe Emma Reynolds—understand this and know what needs to be done, but sadly are forced to toe the party line.
But whether it’s about Britain or about Europe as a whole, it’s time to repeat the message loud and clear—balls to deflationary policies in the midst of recession!
Does the Greek Parliament’s latest vote in favour of further cuts—despite the 40 deputies who defied the whips and were forced to resign—mean that the Greek crisis is resolved? Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, the troika (ECB, IMF and EU) will not approve the €130bn ‘bailout package’ next Wednesday unless Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democrats, agrees to sign. Samaras has made it clear he will not do so until after the April elections because he knows that if he signs now, his party is toast.
For another, even with Parliamentary endorsement of nearly €4bn in cuts for 2012, it is hard to see how the government of Mr Papademos—or whoever succeeds him after the elections—can deliver. And of course, there must be a serious question about whether Ms Merkel and her Eurozone (EZ) allies want Greece to stay in the euro. As the Dutch PM, Marc Rutte, is reported to have said last week, the EZ is now strong enough to weather Greece’s departure—eurospeak for ‘get out’.
Recall what the troika is demanding for 2012 alone:
- a 22 per cent cut in the monthly minimum wage to €586;
- layoffs for 15,000 of civil servants;
- an end to dozens of job guarantee provisions;
- a 20 per cent cut in its government work force by 2015;
- spending cuts of more than €3 billion;
- further cuts to retiree pension benefits.
These demands come as the country faces its fifth consecutive year of recession, and recent OECD figures showing GDP to have fallen by nearly 15% since January 2009 with unemployment standing at 18.7%. As Helena Smith reports in The Guardian, ‘Greece can’t take any more’. Even with the latest cuts and bailout, it is optimistic to forecast that the country’s debt/GDP ratio will be 120% in 2020. According to the FT’s Wolfgang Münchau: “[a] 120% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2020? That’s 9 years of strikes in Greece,” and that is not sustainable.
Is Greece’s problem high labour costs? Nouriel Roubini’s influential think-tank RGE estimates that as far as labour costs are concerned, the view that Greek wages rose too much during the good years is pure myth. In fact, over the period 2005/08, Greek wages rose less quickly than the average for the EZ.
Further cuts mean further recession, and it should be perfectly obvious by now that Greece cannot pay down its sovereign debt as long as the economy is shrinking. As I (and many others) have explained elsewhere, the debt/GDP ratio can only fall where the rate of interest on the debt is less than the rate of GDP growth. Just as Osborne’s cuts are jeopardising the future of the UK economy, so Merkel’s cuts are sinking a (far weaker) Greece.
Unlike some of my colleagues on the left, I have always been pro-euro. But the suffering imposed on Greece now makes me ashamed of being European.
As the Euro Area (EA) dithers about bailing out Greece in the short term and continues to argue about how to expand the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the sovereign debt crisis is turning into a full-blown banking crisis. Shares in Dexia, the Franco-Belgian banking group, are down 72% on their 52-week high—closely followed by other pillars of western finance such as Bank of America (-66%), RBS (-57%) and Deutsche Bank (-50%).  In effect, financial markets have seen the wiring on the wall and have been pulling out of bank shares—both banks that hold euro sovereign debt assets and those that hold shares in other banks that do. This means that the asset side of banks’ balance sheets are contracting and that insolvency looms.
True, the gloom lightened briefly when both Angela Merkel and EU President J-M Barroso announced they favoured a pan-European recapitalisation programme—causing EU bank shares to rally for a time. Governments are trying to pour cash into the banks—in the UK, Mervin King has announced an extra £75bn of quantitative easing (QE), allegedly to help industry get more and cheaper credit, but in reality to ward off a new credit crunch along the lines of what happened after Lehman’s collapsed in 2008. In his words, we face the ‘worst financial crisis ever’.
However, the recapitalisation of Europe’s banks faces a serious credibility gap. First, Dexia was one of the banks to pass the European Banking Authority’s (EBA) ‘stress tests’ with flying colours. Secondly, one result of these tests was a serious underestimation of the degree of recapitalisation required. In consequence, a new round of tests will be required adding further to delays. Perhaps more importantly, there is growing pressure from investors to make banks ‘mark to market’; ie, report the current market value of their assets. Adoption of such a rule combined with current market volatility would doubtless lead to a large number of banks failing the stress tests.
And of course, the prospect of a Greek default looms larger by the day. The problem is not so much that a Greek default is unaffordable; doubtless, were the country to default on its own, it would take some banks down—starting with its own banks. The real danger is that of contagion. We know that Spain and Italy are ‘too big to fail’, and the markets have already begun to mark down commercial banks with exposure to them, not just in Spain and Italy but in France and even the UK. Whatever one may think about financial markets, their analysts are not fools; what they are telling us is that a Greek default will trigger widespread contagion.
Meanwhile, EA Parliaments dither about just how the EFSF’s limited capital can be stretched to meet the bill. Since the €440bn available cannot be miraculously turned into the €2tn required for ‘shock and awe’ to be sure of succeeding, the latest twist involves turning the EFSF from a lending institution into a insurance company, in effect selling credit default swaps (CDSs) to those most in need of insurance. These would be structured into equity, mezzanine and senior layers just like their Wall Street cousins, thus enabling €440bn to be hugely leveraged.
But as more than one commentator has pointed out, there are several problems here. First, one is using over-leveraged instruments to deal with the problem of over-leverage. Second, there is no ‘lender of the last resort’—if the scheme goes wrong, governments cannot bailout the losers since it is governments who hold the equity tranches. In principle, the ECB could perform this role—but the Germans are resolute in their opposition to the ECB acting as a Central Bank for governments.  For that matter, tiny Slovakia is threatening to upset the EFSF applecart unless collateral is provided for its pledged assistance.
An obvious way out of this nightmare would be to forgive Greece at least half its debt (which the markets believe is in any case unpayable) while further reducing the interest on its loan, lengthening its debt maturity profile and aiding the country to become more competitive. Cynics might say this has been obvious from the start, and that it is now too late. If a European financial crisis does not happen next week, it will occur as part of a disorderly default in December when the pain finally becomes too much for Greeks to bear. It is then that we shall all feel the pain of a full-blown financial crisis, most probably followed by more years of economic recession.
 See D Blanchflower ‘As bankshares tumble ..’ New Statesman, 10 Oct 2011.
 See http://on.ft.com/qi7ZIw
It is conventionally assumed that the Eurozone crisis arose because Club-Med governments have been too profligate. If only they had been as cautious as northern European countries, the argument runs, they would have retained their export competitiveness. A recent carefully researched paper, popularly known as the RMF Report and compiled by academics at the University of London, SOAS, shows this view to be entirely without foundation. 
Inter alia, the Report investigates the relationship between Club-Med current account (external) deficits, government deficits and the countries’ total stock of debt. Club-Med governments have not been wildly profligate: Greece, Spain and Portugal all have government deficits lower than the UK, and with the exception of Greece, their net public debt-GDP ratios are running at 60% or less.
The key point, however, is that much of Club-Med debt is held by the private sector: nearly 90% of all debt in Spain, 85% in Portugal and over 50% in Greece. Moreover, less than half of all Spanish debt has been contracted abroad (in contrast to Portugal and Spain where the overseas proportion is much higher). Secondly, a far higher proportion of private debt is relatively short-term, meaning it will need to be refinanced sooner than much of the public debt.
In Spain, private profligacy has mainly to do with a sharp rise in private investment resulting from the housing boom. In Portugal and Greece, by contrast, private investment growth was much less important; in essence, private savings have contracted to finance rising consumer demand. Nor is there anything surprising in these patterns—until 2008, the UK experienced both a private housing boom and a private savings collapse to sustain consumer demand.
All-round austerity starting with government deficit reduction has become the official answer to the problems of the Eurozone. But as the case of Ireland demonstrates, severe cuts reduce aggregate demand and induce further economic contraction, thus lowering government revenue faster than expenditure.
The main argument used by Eurozone deficit hawks—since devaluation is no longer possible—is that public cuts will restore the competitiveness of Club-Med countries. Once again, the problem is that where everyone practices fiscal retrenchment, aggregate demand throughout the Eurozone contracts. Because so much of the Eurozone’s trade takes place within it (ie, is ‘intra-trade’), what may benefit one country taken singly cannot benefit all simultaneously. Competitive wage-cutting has much the same effect as beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation did in the 1930s. And with the poor performance of the US economy increasing competitive pressures in the rest of the world, Club-Med countries cannot easily increase net exports outside the Eurozone.
In effect, we face three possible Eurozone scenarios. The first is a decade of very low growth and high unemployment all ‘round. The danger is that in a decade’s time, Europeans will be so thoroughly disillusioned with the European project that it will fall apart politically.
The second scenario is default—whether partial or full. A partial default or debt restructuring exercise will, minimally, involve losses for creditor banks in Germany and France and necessitate further bailouts. Maximally, debtor-led full default would lead some Club-Med countries to leave the Eurozone, entailing the possible demise of the single currency. Alternatively, growing German resistance to ‘bailouts’ and a serious falling out with Paris over its export-led growth model might lead Germany to quit the euro and revert to its beloved DM.
The third scenario is fundamental reform of the Eurozone: the establishment of a genuine European Treasury with a substantial budget and fiscal powers and reform of the ECB, starting with the emission of federal Eurobonds. It is becoming increasingly clear that if the euro is to be saved, this is the path Europeans will need to adopt. By contrast, universal fiscal retrenchment enforced by levying fines on ‘profligate countries’ fails to address the real issues. But will European political leaders listen?
 See Lapavitsas, C et al (2010) ‘The Eurozone between austerity and default’, RMF, University of London, SOAS <http://www.researchonmoneyandfinance.org/media/reports/RMF-Eurozone-Austerity-and-Default.pdf>
 See http://www.skidelskyr.com/site/article/europes-debt-crisis-and-implications-for-policy/