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Our Daily Warning

As the government of Romania falls as another victim of the economic crisis, the global political risk factor continue to rise and the odds of even more social unrest gains a few more percentage points. EconoTwist’s and many bloggers , analysts and researchers,  have been warning about this for years. But perhaps it’s time for another warning?

 “With people already questioning a model of society prone to generate inequalities, civil unrest in one country would rapidly spark political turmoil and social dissatisfaction across Europe. Foreign investors would fly away from Euro-denominated assets, scared by a spiral of riots, selective defaults, and low GDP that would eventually lead the Euro to collapse.”

Edoardo Campanella

Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc on Monday announced his resignation after three weeks of anti-government protests in the country, following in the footsteps of Giorgio Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi.

He said he took this decision in order to calm “social tensions” and so the “economic stability of the country” is not affected.

Well, the resigning of the PM’s in Greece and Italy doesn’t seem to have helped much in that matter.

See: World Erupts in Anger: “You Can’t Eat Money!” (Photo Coverage)

It seems more like political leaders fleeing from their responsibility.

And if someone don’t claim that responsibility soon, and start doing something about it, we may very well find ourselves in a helluva lot more trouble than we’re already in.

ReadEurope: “Time to Get Angry”

In case there is still anyone who not quite grasp the depth of this crisis, here’s the adviser for the Italian senate, Edoardo Campanella, to explain:

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The Social Consequences of the Euro Crisis

About a year ago the Arab spring taught the world an important, predictable lesson. When young people cease to be the engine of the economy and are excluded from the decision-making process, long-run economic growth is endangered and political stability undermined.

This lesson holds true for dictatorial regimes as well as for long-established democracies.

In Europe, a deteriorating youth marginalization is creating the preconditions for a social earthquake capable of shaking the old continent and impairing the survival of the Euro.

Until now, safety nets and intra-family transfers have prevented peaceful Indignados-style protests from turning into violent Arab-ones.

However, the shortfall of resources due to a new imminent recession, along with fiscal austerity measures, will impair this channel, whereas frustration and social resentment will keep growing

The figures are already alarming.

According to a report recently released by the European Commission, one in five young people is at risk of falling into poverty or social exclusion, only one third of young people are employed, and one in three has been out of work for over one year.

Moreover, 40 per cent of the unemployed are under 30, to the amount of 9 million people. On the other extreme of the age scale, the trend is reversed.

The employment rate for people aged 60-64 increased from 23% in 2000 to 34% in 2010.

In peripheral countries the situation is extremely acute.

The Portuguese government urged its young unemployed to leave Europe for better opportunities elsewhere, in Italy almost 120.000 young talents left the country last year, and in Spain thousands of people are pouring into former colonies in South America.

Across Europe, and even in Germany or Sweden, young workers are experiencing in-work poverty due to what economists call labor market dualism.

Unlike their older colleagues, they just have access to temporary contracts, which pays on average 14%  less than permanent contracts and are more vulnerable to sudden layoffs.

The medium-term economic and social consequences of such youth marginalization are huge.

  • First, an economy that is not nourished by fresh ideas loses competitiveness, becomes vulnerable to interest groups, suffocates material as well as intellectual progress, and is fated to stagnation or even prolonged recessions.
  • Second, high income volatility and job insecurity discourage the creation of new family units that are essential to generate social cohesion as well as inter-generational solidarity.
  • Finally, economic uncertainty tends to lower fertility rates with negative spillovers on the size of tomorrow’s workforce, population ageing, and the sustainability of public finances. The political implications could even be more disastrous.

Therefore, what begs asking is whether these economic factors could contribute to the eruption of an Arab spring in Europe.

There are, of course, huge economic and political differences between North Africa and Europe. The latter, unlike the former, is graying, prosperous, and democratic. But, paradoxically, the combination of these diverging demographic trends and opposite institutional features, along with the same aspiration for a better future, could lead to an identical result.

In North Africa young people represented the demographic majority of a despotic regimes, in Europe the political minority of a democratic system.

The former fought for an economic progress they just started to savor but that was hampered by the elite in power. The latter would fight for a material wellbeing that is only benefiting their older fellow citizens at their expenses.

Either way, young people can improve their situation and gain power only through violent rather than legal channels.

What event, if any, will inflame the upheaval in Europe, which country will be the epicenter of this social earthquake, and what impact it could have on the institutional, democratic order remain uncertain.

However, it is still possible to predict part of the effects.

With people already questioning a model of society prone to generate inequalities, civil unrest in one country would rapidly spark political turmoil and social dissatisfaction across Europe. Foreign investors would fly away from Euro-denominated assets, scared by a spiral of riots, selective defaults, and low GDP that would eventually lead the Euro to collapse.

Edoardo Campanella

To avoid this catastrophe, European governments should start promoting the role of the youth in their societies through family friendly policies, career paths related to productivity rather than to seniority, cross-country mobility, and the eradication of dual labor markets.

Spring is approaching. European leaders should act soon.

Edoardo Campanella is economic adviser to the Italian Senate.

This article is syndicated by www.eurointelligence.com.

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A Tombstone Treaty?

There is no doubt in this bloggers mind that the EU leaders eventually will agree on, and sign, a new fiscal Treaty for the euro zone. But the really interesting question is; will it actually work? Or will this be the document that buries the whole EU idea once and for all?

“The new Treaty provides little enhancement with respect to the Stability and Growth pact and includes measures that are either too vague or likely to be ineffective.”

Massimiliano Marcellino

Well, according to Professor Massimiliano Marcellino at the European University Institute it will not. “This is surely not the right moment to spend so much time in drafting a new treaty that does little to address the most pressing short-term problems of the euro area,” Professor Marcellino writes in a commentary, adding: “But let’s assume for a moment that the Treaty is approved, and without major modifications.”

It’s a perfectly timed commentary, and raises some of the really fundamental questions around the plans for a new fiscal Treaty amongst the euro zone members.

Here’s the rest of the article, published today at the www.eurointelligence.com:

Why We Don’t Need The New Fiscal Treaty

The first goal in the treaty is to “foster budgetary discipline” and Title III of the draft treaty introduces measures aimed at achieving this target.

The key economic indicators used in Title III are the structural balance of the general government, which is required to be balanced or in surplus, and the ratio of the general government debt to gross domestic product (GDP), which in the long run should not exceed 60%, and if it does it should be reduced by an average rate of one twentieth per year.

The problem of a target in terms of structural balance is that this variable is not observable. It must be constructed by cyclically adjusting the actual balance.

There is no consensus about how to measure the business cycle even among economists,  so it can be expected that member states will have very different opinions about the state of their business cycle and hence about the meaning and measurement of “structural balance”.

In addition, it is not obvious from an economic point of view that growth promoting expenditures, such as investment in education and research, should be included in the computations.

Equally problematic is the debt to GDP ratio, considered by many as the prince of fiscal indicators.

However, it is a strange indicator: in the numerator there is a stock variable, the total amount of government debt, and in the denumerator a flow variable, the gross domestic product in a given period.

The latter is considered as an indicator of the capability of the government to repay its debt. But to reflect fully the financial conditions of a government, it would also have to include a measure of the total government assets.

In addition, the value of 60% for the debt to GDP ratio, inherited by the Stability and Growth pact, does not have any serious economical basis. And there seems to be little awareness that reducing the debt to GDP ratio by one twentieth per year, it would require continuous tightening of fiscal policy with negative effects on GDP growth, which would make this policy ineffective while the economic conditions of the country worsen.

Much more preferable are thus targets defined in terms of actual deficits, ratios of debt not only to GDP but also to assets, and more gradual convergence criteria.

The main concern remains however, namely that the procedures in case of a breach of the rules remain very long and complicated, and that the penalty system is unclear and insufficient to prevent future misbehaviour, in particular in the case of a large country.

The second goal of the new Treaty is “to strengthen the coordination of economic policies“, article 9 states that “… the Contracting Parties undertake to work jointly towards a common economic policy fostering the smooth functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union and economic growth through enhanced convergence and competitiveness”.

To this aim, article 11 clarifies that “With a view to benchmarking best practices and working towards a common economic policy, the Contracting Parties ensure that all major economic policy reforms that they plan to undertake will be discussed ex-ante and, where appropriate, coordinated among themselves.”

Here there is quite a bold statement: to work jointly towards a common economic policy.

Taken literally, this has major implications.

But how can we expect that member states are ready to do this after they so utterly failed in the past?

And does this imply that national parliaments should partly give up their authority?

And what happens in case of disagreement on how to foster growth or convergence?

And what is the actual role of other European institutions such as the European Parliament?

Finally, in terms of governance of the euro area, the Euro Summits are welcome but, according to their description in Title V, they seem to be just discussion fora, and in this sense their value added with respect to other existing fora is not clear-cut.

Massimiliano Marcellino

The new Treaty provides little enhancement with respect to the Stability and Growth pact and includes measures that are either too vague or likely to be ineffective.

It also fails to address the current crisis.

Financial markets are more worried about short and medium term solvency than about the enhanced long-term sustainability and policy coordination.

Without bolder actions to prevent a break-up of the euro area this new Treaty is likely to become redundant.

Massimiliano Marcellino is professor at the European University Institute in Florence.

This article is syndicated by www.eurointelligence.com.

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Qou Vadis, QE?

Ever since the first rounds of quantitative easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve, I’ve raised questions about how sound and sustainable this form of monetary policy is? How big is the risk that the greatest economic experiment in modern history may eventually fail? More than three years later, I’m still not sure. The only thing I’m sure of, is that the need for extreme measures is greater than ever.

“It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution. What matters is growth.”

George Irvin

(Photo by freakingnews.com)

While Mr. Ben Bernanke in the USA is trying to figure out new and more creative ways to flow the financial system with money in order to kick-start the nation’s economy, European politicians are obsessing over new and creative austerity measures in order to save money and regain the union’s financial balance. But nothing seems to work. 

In 2008 I called for the launch of a so-called “Keynesian war” – but with a twist:

Instead of increasing public spending the traditional way, by investing in infrastructure like transport and housing or by upgrading public institutions like the military, I suggested to aim the financial “guns” at research and education, closing  the gap between the rich and the poor, and developing clean energy.

The “Keynesian war” was launched, all  right. But the ammunition was poured into the banks and other financial institutions who barely manged to save their own asses, in addition to dump the problems on their respective  national governments.

The financial crisis is currently well beyond the stage I regarded as a “worst-case-scenario” only two years ago.

So, where do we go from here?

One thing ought to be clear: It’s no longer a question of method – the only thing that matters is the result.

Honorary professor George Irvin at University of London makes a pretty good summary in his latest blog post at the EUobserver.com.

The Debt Trap 

“Europe is obsessed with the growing stock of public sector debt; fiscal austerity has become the watchword of our time. Little does it seem to matter that fiscal austerity means reducing aggregate demand, thus leading to economic stagnation and recession throughout the EU as all the main forecasts are now suggesting,” Professor Irvin writes.

Even the credit rating agencies are worried, as S&P’s downgrading of France and eight other countries shows. Whether it’s Angela Merkel or David Cameron speaking, public debt is denounced as deplorable, and all are told to get used to hard times.

As Larry Elliot puts it:

“The notion that economic pain is the only route to pleasure was once the preserve of the British public school-educated elite, now it’s European economic policy”.

In Britain, immediately after the general election, the Tory-led coalition decreed that in light of the large government current deficit, harsh cuts were necessary to win the confidence of the financial markets.

But although the current deficit was high, the stock of debt (typically measured by the debt/GDP ratio) was relatively low and of long maturity, the real interest rate on debt was zero (and at times negative) and, crucially,

Britain had its own Central Bank and could devalue. As Harriet Harman argued in June 2010, Osborne’s cuts were ideologically motivated. The aim was to shrink the public sector, and the LibDems—fearing a new general election—chose to go along with the policy.

In the euro zone (EZ), where a balance of payments crisis at the periphery has turned into a sovereign debt crisis, the German public has been sold the idea that if only all EZ countries could be like Germany and adhere to strict fiscal discipline, all would be well.

The ultra-orthodox Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) has now been repackaged under the heading of ‘economic governance’ under which Germany and its allies will vet members’ fiscal policies and impose punitive fines on those failing to observe the deflationary budget rules to be adopted.

Never mind the fact that indebtedness in countries like Spain and Ireland was mainly private, or that the draconian fiscal measures imposed on Greece have, far from reducing public indebtedness, increased it.

Is debt always a bad thing?

In the private sector, obviously not since corporations regularly borrow money for expenditure they don’t want to meet out of retained earnings, while most households aim to hold long-term mortgages.

Public debt instruments like gilts in the UK or bunds in Germany are much sought after by the private sector, mainly because such instruments are thought to act as an excellent hedge against risk.

Remember, too, that when a pension fund buys a government bond, it is held as an asset which produces a future cash stream which benefits the private sector.

So ‘public debt’ is not a burden passed on from one generation to the next.

The stock of public debt is only a problem when its servicing (ie, payment of interest) is unaffordable; ie, in times of recession when growth is zero or negative and/or interest rates demanded by the financial market are soaring.

The question is when is debt sustainable?

Sustainability means keeping the ratio of debt to GDP stable in the longer term.

If GDP at the start of the year is €1,000bn and the government’s total stock of debt is €600bn, then the debt ratio is 60%; the fiscal deficit is the extra borrowing that the government makes in a year – so it adds to the stock of debt.

But although the stock of debt may be rising, as long as GDP is rising proportionately, the debt/GDP ratio can be kept constant or may even be falling.

Consider the following example. Suppose the real rate of interest on debt is 2% (say 5% nominal but with inflation at 3%, so 5 – 3 = 2). That means government must pay €12bn per annum of interest in real terms. But as long as real GDP, too, is rising—say at 2% per year—there’s no problem since real GDP at the year’s end will be €1020bn.

Even if the government were to pay none of the interest, the end-of-year debt/GDP ratio would be 612/1020 or 60%; ie, the debt ratio remains unchanged.

By contrast, if real GDP growth is zero, the ratio would be 612/1000 = 61.2; ie, the debt ratio rises only slightly. 

The rule is that as long as the real economy is growing by at least as much as the real rate of interest on debt, the debt/GDP ratio doesn’t rise.

Moreover, this holds true irrespective of whether the debt ratio is 60% or 600%.

But there’s a catch.

In a modern economy, the public sector accounts for about half the economy.

If a country panics about its debt ratio and cuts back sharply on public sector spending, this reduces aggregate demand and may lead to stagnation or even recession.

When a country stops growing, financial markets decide that its debt ratio may rise and so become more cautious about lending and demand a higher bond yield (ie, interest rate).

The gloomy prophecy of growing public indebtedness becomes self-fulfilling. This is exactly the sort of “debt trap” which faces much of the EU and other rich countries. The way out cannot be greater austerity.

What works for a single household or firm doesn’t work for the economy as a whole. A household can tighten its belt by spending less, saving more, and thus ‘balancing the books’, but an economy cannot.

If everybody saves more, national income falls.

Of course, Germany and some Nordic countries can balance the government books because an export surplus offsets domestic private saving. But the Club-Med countries cannot match them.

When no EZ country can devalue, to ask each EZ country to balance the books by running an export surplus is empirically and logically impossible.

Even if all could devalue, what would follow is 1930’s-style competitive devaluation.

The way out of the ‘debt trap’ is the same as the way out of recession: if the private sector won’t invest, the public sector must become investor of the last resort.

It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution (some combination of the three would be optimal).

What matters is growth.

By George Irvin

George Irvin is a retired professor of economics and for many years was at ISS in The Hague. He is now honorary Professorial Research Fellow in Development Studies at the University of London, SOAS.

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