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Articles for the ‘Essentials of Economics 6e: Ch 12’ Category

Scotland: Fiscal Autonomy?

Scottish voters will be crucial in the upcoming election, with the SNP poised to take many of Labour’s seats north of the border. The future of Scotland will depend on which party comes to power and what decisions are made with regards to its finances.

Nicola Sturgeon wants government spending and taxation powers transferred to the Scottish Parliament, but would this mean spending cuts and tax rises for the Scottish people? Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader has been vocal in pointing out what this might mean, with cuts to pensions or raising taxes. However, given that it is Labour that is facing the biggest threat from the SNP, it is perhaps hardly surprising.

However, as the first video below shows, there would be an estimated £7.6bn deficit in Scotland, according to the IFS if spending and taxing was to be transferred here. This is because the tax revenues raised in Scotland are lower per person and spending per person is higher than across the whole of the UK. Oil prices are extremely low at present and hence this is reducing tax revenues. When the oil price does rise, revenues will increase and so if the split in finances was to occur this would reduce that deficit somewhat, but it would still leave a rather large hole in Scotland’s finances. The following videos and articles consider the SNP’s plans.

Videos
SNP fiscal autonomy plan: What would it do to Scotland’s finances? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/4/15)
Labour attacks SNP’s ‘devastating’ economic plans BBC News (10/4/15)

Articles
Ed Miliband attacks SNP plan for Scottish fiscal autonomy The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)
Ed Miliband wars pensions will be cut under SNP plans The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (10/4/15)
SNP fails to account for billions in welfare and pensions pledge, says IFS The Guardian, Severin Carrell (10/4/15)

Questions

  1. What is a budget deficit?
  2. What does fiscal autonomy for Scotland actually mean?
  3. The IFS suggests that there will be a large deficit in Scottish finances if they gain autonomy. How could this gap be reduced?
  4. Why has Labour claimed that tax rises would occur under the SNP’s plans? What could this mean for Scottish growth?
  5. Why do lower oil prices reduce tax revenues for Scotland?
  6. If Scotland had control over its finances, it could influence where government spending goes. Which industries would you invest in if you were in charge?
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The UK’s poor productivity record

Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.

But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.

The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.

The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.

The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.

Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.

The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.

Articles
UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)

Data
Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs

Questions

  1. How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
  2. Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
  3. Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
  4. Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
  5. What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
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Interpreting economic data at election time

The UK general election is on May 7. In the campaign during the run-up to the election the economy will be a major issue. All parties will use economic data to claim that the economy has performed well or badly and that the prospects are good or bad. As economics students you will, no doubt, be asked to comment on these claims by your friends. So where can you get analysis of the data that is not biased towards one party or another?

One source is the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is respected by politicians of all parties as an impartial presenter and analyser of economic data. In fact, it is fiercely independent. But at election time, when often quite dramatic claims are made by politicians, the IFS often comments on whether the data support such claims.

An example occurred when David Cameron claimed that if Labour were elected, working families would face a £3028 tax rise to fund the party’s spending commitments. The IFS said that the claim was misleading as, even on the Conservatives’ assumptions, it was was based on the cumulative increase over five years, not the annual increase, and was not per household but only per working household. The IFS also said that the Conservatives’ assumptions were wrong and not in accordance with the Charter for Budget Responsibility, with which the Labour party agreed.

Expect the IFS to criticise more claims as the election campaign progresses: not just by the Conservative party but by the other parties too. After all, the IFS is not partisan and is prepared to challenge false economic claims from whatever party. Expect also that the political parties will cherry pick whatever statements by the IFS seen to favour them or criticise their opponents.

You can also expect political bias in the newspapers that report the campaigns. Even when they present facts, how they present them and which facts they choose to include and which to ignore will be a reflection of their political bias. So even newspaper reporting of what the IFS says is likely to be selective and nuanced!

Why IFS boss Paul Johnson counts in this tightest of general elections The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/3/15)
David Cameron’s claim that Labour would raise taxes by £3,000 is ‘not sensible’, says the IFS Independent, Jon Stone (30/3/15)
‘tax rise’ is shot down by IFS The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (30/3/15)
We will borrow more if we win the election, Labour admits The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (29/3/15)
Chancellor accused of U-turn on austerity: Top economist says £20bn fiscal boost lurking in Budget is ‘remarkable reversal’ This is Money, Hugo Duncan (19/3/15)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between positive and normative statements. How might politicians blur the distinction in their claims and counter-claims?
  2. Identify three series of macroeconomic data from at least two independent organisations. For what reasons might the data be (a) unreliable; (b) used by political parties to mislead the electorate?
  3. In what ways can political parties use economic data to their own advantage without falsifying the data?
  4. How may public-sector deficit and debt statistics be interpreted in ways to suit (a) the current government’s case that the public finances have been well managed; (b) the opposition case that the public finances have been badly managed?
  5. Use data to analyse an economic claim by each of at least three political parties and the extent to which the claims are accurate.
  6. The above links are to articles from four UK national newspapers: The Guardian, the Independent, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail (This is Money). Identify political bias in the reporting in each of the articles.
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The six year anniversary

In March 2009, interest rates in the UK fell to a record low of 0.5%. At the time, it is unlikely that anyone expected that we would still be talking about such low interest rates 6 years later. There has been no movement in the UK rate of interest over the past 6 years and many believe that we are unlikely to see an increase before 2016 or late 2015 at the earliest. With inflation at 0.3%, there is ‘little reason to raise the cost of borrowing’.

The cut in interest rates back in 2009 was in response to the financial crisis and recession. A key instrument of monetary policy, interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand. Lower interest rates reduce the cost of borrowing, reduce the return on savings and hence encourage consumption. They can also reduce mortgage repayments and have a role in reducing the exchange rate. All of these factors are crucial for any economic stimulus. As the recovery in the UK took hold, discussions started to focus on when (and not if) interest rates would increase. As the 6 year anniversary occurs, with the MPC keeping rates at 0.5% for March, this question has once again been raised.

Interest rates are used to target inflation and the target in the UK is 2% +/- 1%. With inflation at 0.3% and some predicting that it will turn negative, thanks to such a large fall in oil prices, perhaps the most likely change in interest rates is that they will fall further. A senior Economic Adviser to the EY Item Club commented:

“While the risks of an earlier rate rise have probably increased lately, we still think it most likely that the Bank will wait until February 2016, by which time inflation will be back above 1% and heading towards the 2% target.”

This was echoed by the Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce, who said:

“The strengthening pound against the euro is already posing challenges for many UK exporters and higher interest rates would only make matters worse…Given this background, business confidence will be strengthened if the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) clearly states that interest rates are likely to stay on hold until at least early 2016.”

Some might question the logic of keeping interest rates so low, given that unemployment is falling and the economy is growing. In such cases, we would normally expect interest rates to increase, especially given how low they are and the fact that it has been 6 years since they went down. However, with oil prices down, inflation has fallen and wage growth does remain relatively weak. Furthermore, there are still some areas within the UK that are still in the recovery process.

The strength of the economy relative to Europe is also putting upward pressure on the pound, which will adversely affect the competitiveness of UK exports. These factors together mean that retaining interest rates at 0.5% received unanimous support amongst the MPC. The only disagreement was on the future direction of interest rates. It is this disagreement that is perhaps what is causing problems, as confirmation of what will happen to interest rates over the rest of 2015 would give greater certainty to an economy. The following articles consider this anniversary.

UK interest rates mark six-year anniversary at record low The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (5/3/15)
UK interest rates mark six years at record low of 0.5% BBC News (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps interest rates on hold Financial Times, Emily Cadman (5/3/15)
Carney facing seven-year itch as BOE holds rates Bloomberg, Jennifer Ryan (5/3/15)
Bank of England rates have now been on hold six years. Here’s how it has affected you The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps rates on hold, six years after crisis cut Reuters (5/3/15)
Bank of England keeps key rate at record low Wall Street Journal, Jason Douglas (5/3/15)

Questions

  1. By outlining the key components of aggregate demand, explain the mechanisms by which interest rates will affect each component.
  2. How can inflation rates be affected by interest rates?
  3. Why is there a debate amongst the MPC as to the future direction of interest rates?
  4. The Chief Economist at the British Chambers of Commerce has said that the strengthening pound is creating problems in the UK and higher interest rates would make matters worse. Why is this?
  5. Who would be helped and harmed by a rate rise?
  6. Consider the main macroeconomic objectives and in each case explain whether economic theory would suggest that interest rates should (a) fall , (b) remain at 0.5% or (c) rise.
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Deeper in debt

‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?

The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.

The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.

As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.

But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.

Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)

Questions

  1. What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
  2. What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
  3. What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
  4. What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
  5. What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
  6. Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
  7. Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
  8. What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
  9. Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
  10. Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?
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UK productivity: a constraint on long-term growth

‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.

For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.

So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.

More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.

Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.

Articles
OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)

Report
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)

Questions

  1. In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
  2. Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
  3. What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
  4. Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
  5. What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
  6. What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
  7. What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
  8. Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?
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Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, global debt is now higher than before the financial crisis. And that crisis was largely caused by excessive lending. As The Telegraph article linked below states:

The figures are as remarkable as they are terrifying. Global debt – defined as the liabilities of governments, firms and households – has jumped by $57 trillion, or 17% of global GDP, since the fourth quarter of 2007, which was supposed to be the peak of the bad old credit-fuelled days. In 2000, total debt was worth 246% of global GDP; by 2007, this had risen to 269% of GDP and today we are at 286% of GDP.

This is not how policy since the financial crisis was supposed to have worked out. Central banks and governments have been trying to encourage greater saving and reduced credit as a percentage of GDP, a greater capital base for banks, and reduced government deficits as a means of reducing government debt. But of 47 large economies in the McKinsey study, only five have succeeded in reducing their debt/GDP ratios since 2007 and in many the ratio has got a lot higher. China, for example, has seen its debt to GDP ratio almost double – from 158% to 282%, although its government debt remains low relative to other major economies.

Part of the problem is that the lack of growth in many countries has made it hard for countries to reduce their public-sector deficits to levels that will allow the public-sector debt/GDP ratio to fall.

In terms of the UK, private-sector debt has been falling as a percentage of GDP. But this has been more than offset by a rise in the public-sector debt/GDP ratio. As Robert Peston says:

[UK indebtedness] increased by 30 percentage points, to 252% of GDP (excluding financial sector or City debts) – as government debts have jumped by 50 percentage points of GDP, while corporate and household debts have decreased by 12 and 8 percentage points of GDP respectively.

So what are the likely consequences of this growth in debt and what can be done about it? The articles and report consider these questions.

Articles
Instead of paying down its debts, the world’s gone on another credit binge The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/15)
Global debts rise $57tn since crash BBC News, Robert Peston (5/2/15)
China’s Total Debt Load Equals 282% of GDP, Raising Economic Risks The Wall Street Journal, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (4/2/15)

Report
Debt and (not much) deleveraging McKinsey Global Institute, Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva (February 2015)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
  2. Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
  3. What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
  4. When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
  5. Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
  6. Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
  7. Is it possible for (a) individual countries; (b) all countries collectively to ‘live beyond their means’ by consuming more than they are producing through borrowing?
  8. What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?
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Deficiency of demand: a global problem

The first link below is to an excellent article by Noriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Roubini was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. In this article he looks at the current problem of substantial deficiency of demand: in other words, where actual output is well below potential output (a negative output gap). It is no wonder, he argues, that in these circumstances central banks around the world are using unconventional monetary policies, such as virtually zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).

He analyses the causes of deficiency of demand, citing banks having to repair their balance sheets, governments seeking to reduce their deficits, attempts by firms to cut costs, effects of previous investment in commodity production and rising inequality.

The second link is to an article about the prediction by the eminent fund manager, Crispin Odey, that central banks are running out of options and that the problem of over-supply will lead to a global slump and a stock market crash that will be ‘remembered in a hundred years’. Odey, like Roubini, successfully predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Today he argues that the looming ‘down cycle will cause a great deal of damage, precisely because it will happen despite the efforts of central banks to thwart it.’

I’m sorry to post this pessimistic blog and you can find other forecasters who argue that QE by the ECB will be just what is needed to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone and allow it to follow the USA and the UK into recovery. That’s the trouble with economic forecasting. Forecasts can vary enormously depending on assumptions about variables, such as future policy measures, consumer and business confidence, and political events that themselves are extremely hard to predict.

Will central banks continue to deploy QE if the global economy does falter? Will governments heed the advice of the IMF and others to ease up on deficit reduction and engage in a substantial programme of infrastructure investment? Who knows?

An Unconventional Truth Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/2/15)
UK fund manager predicts stock market plunge during next recession The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (30/1/15)

Questions

  1. Explain each of the types of unconventional monetary policy identified by Roubini.
  2. How has a policy of deleveraging by banks affected the impact of quantitative easing on aggregate demand?
  3. Assume you predict that global economic growth will increase over the next two years. What reasons might you give for your prediction?
  4. Why have most commodity prices fallen in recent months? (In the second half of 2014, the IMF all-commodity price index fell by 28%.)
  5. What is likely to be the impact of falling commodity prices on global demand?
  6. Some neo-liberal economists had predicted that central bank policies ‘would lead to hyperinflation, the US dollar’s collapse, sky-high gold prices, and the eventual demise of fiat currencies at the hands of digital krypto-currency counterparts’. Why, according to Roubini, did the ‘root of their error lie in their confusion of cause and effect’?
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The need for fiscal integration in the eurozone

In a speech in Dublin on 28 January 2015, titled ‘Fortune favours the bold‘, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, compared the UK economy to that of the 19-nation eurozone. While he welcomed the ECB’s recently announced quantitative easing programme, he argued that the current construction of the eurozone is unfinished and still has two fundamental weaknesses that have not been addressed.

The first is the fragmented nature of banking:

With limited cross-border banking in the euro area, savings don’t flow to potential investments. Euro-area corporates’ cash balances have risen to the tune of €420 billion, or 3% of GDP, since the crisis, for example. Modest cross-border equity flows mean inadequate risk sharing.

The second is the lack of an integrated fiscal policy.

For complete solutions to both current and potential future problems, the sharing of fiscal risks is required.

It is no coincidence that effective currency unions tend to have centralised fiscal authorities whose spending is a sizeable share of GDP – averaging over a quarter of GDP for advanced countries outside the euro area.

… If the eurozone were a country, fiscal policy would be substantially more supportive. However, it is tighter than in the UK, even though Europe still lacks other effective risk sharing mechanisms and is relatively inflexible. A more constructive fiscal policy would help recycle surplus private savings and mitigate the tail risk of stagnation. It would also bridge the drag from structural reforms on nominal spending and would be consistent with the longer term direction of travel towards greater integration.

But fiscal integration requires a political will to transfer fiscal surpluses from the stronger countries, such as Germany, to the weaker countries, such as those in southern Europe.

Overall, the financial and fiscal position in the eurozone is strong:

Gross general government debt in the euro area is roughly the same as in the UK and below the average of advanced economies. The weighted average yield on 10-year euro area sovereign debt is around 1%, compared to 1½% in the UK. And yet, the euro area’s fiscal deficit is half that in the UK. Its structural deficit, according to the IMF, is less than one third as large.

But, unlike the UK, where, despite the rhetoric of austerity, automatic fiscal stabilisers have been allowed to work and the government has accepted a much slower than planned reduction in the deficit, in the eurozone fiscal policy remains tight. Yet unemployment, at 11½%, is twice the rate in the UK and economic growth, at around 0.7% is only one-quarter of that in the UK.

Without a eurozone-wide fiscal policy the problem of slow growth is likely to persist for some time. Monetary policy in the form of QE will help and structural reforms will help to stimulate potential output and long-term growth, but these policies could be much more effective if backed up by fiscal policy.

Whether they will be any time soon is a political question.

Speech
Fortune favours the bold Bank of England. Mark Carney (29/1/15)

Articles
Bank of England’s Carney urges Europe to take plunge on fiscal union Reuters, Padraic Halpin (28/1/15)
Bank Of England’s Mark Carney Attacks ‘Timid’ Eurozone Recovery Attempts Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (29/1/15)
BoE’s Mark Carney calls for common eurozone fiscal policies Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (28/1/15)
Carney attacks German austerity BBC News, Robert Peston (28/1/15)
Bank of England governor attacks eurozone austerity The Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/1/15)

Questions

  1. Compare the financial and fiscal positions of the UK and the eurozone.
  2. In what way is there a ‘debt trap’ in the eurozone?
  3. What did Mark Carney mean when he said, ‘Cross-border risk-sharing through the financial system has slid backwards.’?
  4. What options are there for the eurozone sharing fiscal risks?
  5. What would a ‘more constructive’ fiscal policy, as advocated by Mark Carney, look like?
  6. How do the fiscal policies of other currency unions, such as the UK (union of the four nations of the UK) or the USA (union of the 50 states) or Canada (union of the 10 provinces and three territories), differ from that of the eurozone?
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The ECB takes the plunge – at last

After promises made back in July 2012 that the ECB will ‘do whatever it takes’ to protect the eurozone economy, the ECB has at last done just that. It has launched a large-scale quantitative easing programme. It will create new money to buy €60 billion of assets every month in the secondary market.

Around €10 billion will be private-sector securities that are currently being purchased under the asset-backed securities purchase programme (ABSPP) and the covered bond purchase programme (CBPP3), which were both launched late last year. The remaining €50 billion will be public-sector assets, mainly bonds of governments in the eurozone. This extended programme of asset purchases will begin in March this year and continue until at least September 2016, bringing the total of asset purchased by that time to over €1.1 trillion.

The ECB has taken several steps towards full QE over the past few months, including €400 billion of targeted long-term lending to banks, cutting interest rates to virtually zero (and below zero for the deposit rate) and the outright purchase of private-sector assets. But all these previous moves failed to convince markets that they would be enough to stimulate recovery and stave off deflation. Hence the calls for full quantitative easing became louder and it was widely anticipated that the ECB would finally embark on the purchase of government bonds – in other words, would finally adopt a programme of QE similar to those adopted in the USA (from 2008), the UK (from 2009) and Japan (from 2010).

Rather than the ECB buying the government bonds centrally, each of the 19 national central banks (NCBs), which together with the ECB constitute the Eurosystem, will buy their own nation’s bonds. The amount they will buy will depend on their capital subscriptions the eurozone. For example, the German central bank will buy German bonds amounting to 25.6% of the total bonds purchased by national central banks. France’s share will be 20.1% (i.e. French bonds constituting 20.1% of the total), Spain’s share will be 12.6% and Malta’s just 0.09%.

Central banks of countries that are still in bail-out programmes will not be eligible to purchase their countries’ assets while their compliance with the terms of the bailout is under review (as is the case currently with Greece).

The risk of government default on their bonds will be largely (80%) covered by the individual countries’ central banks, not by the central banks collectively. Only 20% of bond purchases will be subject to risk sharing between member states according to their capital subscription percentages: the ECB will directly purchase 8% of government bonds and 12% will be bonds issued by European institutions rather than countries. As the ECB explains it:

With regard to the sharing of hypothetical losses, the Governing Council decided that purchases of securities of European institutions (which will be 12% of the additional asset purchases, and which will be purchased by NCBs) will be subject to loss sharing. The rest of the NCBs’ additional asset purchases will not be subject to loss sharing. The ECB will hold 8% of the additional asset purchases. This implies that 20% of the additional asset purchases will be subject to a regime of risk sharing.

As with the QE programmes in the USA, the UK and Japan, the transmission mechanism is indirect. The assets purchased will be from financial institutions, who will thus receive the new money. The bond purchases and the purchases of assets by financial institutions with the acquired new money will drive up asset prices and hence drive down long-term interest rates. This, hopefully, will stimulate borrowing and increase aggregate demand and hence output, employment and prices.

The ECB will buy bonds issued by euro area central governments, agencies and European institutions in the secondary market against central bank money, which the institutions that sold the securities can use to buy other assets and extend credit to the real economy. In both cases, this contributes to an easing of financial conditions.

In addition, there is an exchange rate transmission mechanism. To the extent that the extra money is used to purchase non-eurozone assets, so this will drive down the euro exchange rate. This, in turn, will boost the demand for eurozone exports and reduce the demand for imports to the eurozone. This, again, represents an increase in aggregate demand.

The extent to which people will borrow more depends, of course, on confidence that the eurozone economy will expand. So far, the response of markets suggests that such confidence will be there. But we shall have to wait to see if the confidence is sustained.

But even if QE does succeed in stimulating aggregate demand, there remains the question of the competitiveness of eurozone economies. Some people are worried, especially in Germany, that the boost given by QE will reduce the pressure on countries to engage in structural reforms – reforms that some people feel are vital for long-term growth in the eurozone

The articles consider the responses to QE and assess its likely impact.

Articles
The ECB makes its mind up: The launch of euro-style QE The Economist (22/1/15)
ECB unveils massive QE boost for eurozone BBC News (22/1/15)
Eurozone boost of €1.1tn in ‘shock and awe’ plan by Central Bank The Guardian, Heather Stewart (22/1/15)
European Central Bank unleashes quantitative easing Financial Times, Claire Jones (22/1/15)
11 questions you are too embarrassed to ask about Quantitative Easing Independent, Russell Lynch (22/1/15)
What the experts say about the ECB’s latest round of QE The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/1/15)
Mario Draghi’s QE blitz may save southern Europe, but at the risk of losing Germany The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (22/1/15)
The sad consequences of the fear of QE The Economist, Paul De Grauwe (21/1/15)
Will euro QE work? BBC News, Robert Peston (20/1/15)

ECB publications
ECB announces expanded asset purchase programme ECB Press Release (22/1/15)
Introductory statement to the press conference (with Q&A) ECB Press Conference, Mario Draghi, President of the ECB (22/1/15)
Webcast of ECB press conference, Mario Draghi, President of the ECB (22/1/15)

Previous blog posts
The fate of the eurozone (7/1/15)
Eurozone deflation risk (1/12/14)
Edging closer to full QE (6/9/14)
The ECB: tackling the threat of deflation (8/6/14)

Data
Euro area economic and financial data ECB

Questions

  1. Why has the ECB been reluctant to engage in full QE before now?
  2. How has the ECB answered the objections of strong eurozone countries, such as Germany, to taking on the risks associated with weaker countries?
  3. What determines the amount by which aggregate demand will rise following a programme of asset purchases?
  4. In what ways and to what extent will non-eurozone countries benefit or lose from the ECB’s decision?
  5. Are there any long-term dangers to the eurozone economy of the ECB’s QE programme? If so, how might they be tackled?
  6. Why did the euro plummet on the ECB’s announcement? Why had it not plummeted before the announcement, given that the introduction of full QE was widely expected?
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