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Posts Tagged ‘austerity programme’

When the light at the end of the tunnel is yet another oncoming train: Greece’s woes set to continue

As we saw in several posts on this site, last year was a tumultuous one for the Greek people and their economy. The economy was on the verge of bankruptcy; the Greek people rejected the terms of a bailout in a referendum; exit from the eurozone and having to return to the drachma seemed likely; banks were forced to closed at the height of the crisis; capital controls were imposed, with people restricted to drawing €60 a day or €420 a week – a policy still in force today; unemployment soared and many people suffered severe hardship.

To achieve the bailout, the Syriza government had to ignore the results of the referendum and agree to harsh austerity policies and sweeping market-orientated supply-side policies. This, at least, allowed Greece to stay in the eurozone. It held, and won, another election to seek a further mandate for these policies.

But what are the prospects for 2016? Will it be a year of recovery and growth, with market forces working to increase productivity? Does 2016 mark the beginning of the end and, as prime minister Alexis Tsipras put it, “a final exit from economic crisis”?

Or will the continuing cuts simply push the economy deeper into recession, with further rises in unemployment and more and more cases of real human hardship? Is there a hysteresis effect here, with the past six years having created a demoralised and deskilled people, with cautious investors unable and/or unwilling to rebuild the economy?

The article below looks at the rather gloomy prospects for Greece and at whether there are any encouraging signs. It also looks at the further demands of the troika of creditors – the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission’s European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – and at what the political and economic impact of these might be.

Greece’s economic crisis goes on, like an odyssey without end The Guardian, Helena Smith (4/1/16)

Questions

  1. Construct a timeline of Greece’s debt repayments, both past and scheduled, and of the bailouts given by the troika to prevent Greece defaulting.
  2. What supply-side reforms are being demanded by Greece’s creditors?
  3. What will be the effect of these supply-side reforms in (a) the short run; (b) the long run?
  4. Explain the meaning of hysteresis as it applies to an economy in the aftermath of a recession. How does the concept apply in the Greek situation?
  5. Discuss the alternative policy options open to the Greek government for tackling the persistent recession.
  6. Would it be better for Greece to leave the euro? Explain your arguments.
  7. “I cannot see how this government can survive the reforms. And I cannot see how it can avoid these reforms.” Is there any way out of this apparent impasse for the Greek government?
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A high-risk game of thrones

The negotiations between Greece and the ‘troika’ of creditors (the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB) have seen many twists and turns before breaking down on 26 June. Throughout, both sides have sought to give as little as possible while seeking a compromise. Both sides have claimed that their position is reasonable, even though a gulf has remained between them.

What has been playing out is a high-stakes game, where the optimum outcome for each side is quite different.

Greece seeks bailout terms that would allow it to achieve a smaller primary budget surplus (but still a surplus in the midst of a deep recession). The surplus would be achieved largely through tax rises on the wealthy rather than further cuts that would hit the poor hard. It is also seeking a substantial amount of debt forgiveness to make servicing the remaining debt possible.

The troika is seeking a larger budget surplus than the Greeks are willing to contemplate. This, it maintains, should be achieved largely through additional cuts in government expenditure, including further reductions in pensions and in public-sector wages.

Both sides used threats and promises as the negotiations became more and more acrimonious.

The troika threatened to withhold the final €7.2bn of the bailout necessary to pay the €1.6bn due to the IMF on 30 June, unless the Greeks accepted the terms of the austerity package put to them. The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, in rejecting the proposals, called a referendum on the package. This threatens the stability of the eurozone as a No vote, if it led to a Greek exit from the eurozone, could undermine confidence in monetary union. After all, if Greece could be forced out, other countries facing severe difficulties might also be forced out at some point in the future. Once a country leaves the eurozone, the monetary union becomes more like a system of pegged exchange rates. And pegged exchange rates are open to destabilising speculation at times of economic divergence.

A Greek exit from the euro (dubbed ‘Grexit’) is seen as undesirable by most Greeks and by most politicians in the rest of Europe. The optimum for both sides collectively would be a compromise, which saw more modest cuts by Greece and the eurozone remaining intact. By both sides seeking to maximise their own position, the Nash equilibrium is certainly not the best outcome.

But as long as the troika believes that the Greeks are likely to vote Yes to the proposed bailout terms, it still hopes to get the outcome that is best from its point of view – an outcome that would probably involve regime change. And as long as the Greek government hopes that a No vote will force the troika to think again and come back with less austere proposals, it still hopes to get the outcome that is best from its point of view. But the outcome of this game of ‘chicken’ could well be Grexit and a Nash equilibrium that neither side wants.

But while the endgame is being played out by politicians, people in Greece are suffering. Policies of severely depressing aggregate demand to turn a large budget deficit into a primary budget surplus have led to the economy shrinking by 26%, overall unemployment of 27% and youth unemployment of over 60%. The Greeks truly believe themselves to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The following articles look at the nature of the ‘game’ being played and at the effects on the Greek economy, both of the proposed austerity package proposed by the troika and Grexit. They also look at the knock-on effects for the eurozone, the EU and the global economy.

Can game theory explain the Greek debt crisis? BBC News Magazine, Marcus Miller (26/6/15)
Against the Grain: What Yanis Varoufakis can learn from a real game theory master – Nicola Sturgeon City A.M., Paul Ormerod (24/6/15)
John Nash’s Game Theory and Greece Bloomberg, Mohamed A. El-Erian (29/5/15)
The Greek crisis: that 1931 moment The Economist, Buttonwood column (23/6/15)
How game theory explains Grexit and may also predict Greek poll outcome The Conversation, Partha Gangopadhyay (1/7/15)
Greece debt crisis: Tsipras may resign if Greeks vote yes BBC News (30/6/15)
Greek debt crisis: Is Grexit inevitable? BBC News. Paul Kirby (29/6/15)
Existential threat to euro from Greek exit BBC News, Robert Peston (29/6/15)
How I would vote in the Greek referendum The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (29/6/15)
Greece in chaos: will Syriza’s last desperate gamble pay off? The Guardian, Paul Mason (29/6/15)
What happens if Greece defaults on its International Monetary Fund loans? The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (30/6/15)
For Greece’s international creditors, regime change is the ultimate goal The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (29/6/15)
Europe has suffered a reputational catastrophe in Greece The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (2/7/15)

Questions

  1. What is meant by a primary budget surplus?
  2. What was the troika’s proposal on the table on the 26 June that was rejected by the Greek government?
  3. What was the Greek government’s proposal that was rejected by the troika?
  4. Explain the decision trees outlined in the first BBC article below.
  5. In terms of game theory, what form of game is being played?
  6. Are the negotiations between the Greek government and the troika a prisoners’ dilemma game? Explain why or why not.
  7. Does the game being played between the SNP and the Conservative government in the UK offer any useful lessons to both sides in the negotiations over Greece’s possible bailout and its terms?
  8. Does a No vote in the referendum on 5 July imply that Greece must leave the euro? Explain.
  9. What would be the effects of further austerity measures on aggregate demand? What benefits to the Greek economy could be achieved from such measures?
  10. Why may pegged exchange rates be regarded as the worst of both worlds – a single currency in a monetary union and floating exchange rates?
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It could be you

An excellent learning exercise for students of economics is to take a journal article that uses data to model the economy and then try to replicate the authors’ results. You may well be given an assignment like this in future years of your degree.

One such exercise is used on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s doctoral programme in economics. Thomas Herndon is a student on that degree and chose to examine a well-known and highly influential paper, Growth in a Time of Debt by Carmen Reinhart then of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University and former chief economist of the IMF. Professors Reinhart and Rogoff used new data on 44 countries spanning about 200 years.

A key finding of their paper, published in 2010 in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, is that once a country’s government debt exceeds 90% of GDP, growth rates fall considerably: the median across countries by about 1% and the mean considerably more.

The paper has been hugely influential. It has been used to justify the austerity programmes being pursued in many countries, including the UK and the eurozone. Cutting the government deficit to GDP ratio, and ultimately the government debt to GDP ratio, has been seen as a way of achieving higher growth over the longer term, and justifies the adverse effect on short-term growth from the dampening of aggregate demand.

Well, this seemed an interesting paper for Thomas Herndon to examine, and he was keen to show just how Reinhart and Rogoff’s data led to their conclusions. But try as he might, he could not replicate their results. His initial reaction was to think he had made an error, but each time he checked he came back with the same conclusion: they must have made errors in their calculations.

His supervisor at Amherst, Professor Michael Ash, after Thomas had checked and checked again, realised that something was wrong. He encouraged Thomas to write to Reinhart and Rogoff to request sight of their dataset. They duly obliged and it was then that Thomas spotted various errors. These are explained in the articles below, but the overall effect was to alter the conclusion. Although high debt may undermine growth to some extent, the effect is much less than Reinhart and Rogoff concluded, and there are several exceptions to this rule.

On 15 April 2013, Thomas, along with his supervisor, Michael Ash and his colleague, Robert Pollin, published a response to the Reinhart and Rogoff paper. In the abstract to their paper, Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff they state that:

… coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies in the post-war period. They find that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not –0:1 percent as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.

The authors also show how the relationship between public debt and GDP growth varies significantly by time period and country. Overall, the evidence we review contradicts Reinhart and Rogoff’s claim to have identified an important stylized fact, that public debt loads greater than 90 percent of GDP consistently reduce GDP growth.

So could this be you in the future? Will you take a famous paper and, by re-examining and reworking the data, find that its conclusions are wrong? Could you end up changing the world? Exciting stuff!

Podcasts
Austerity: A Spreadsheet Error? BBC, More or Less, Tim Harford (20/4/13)
Austerity justification study ‘inaccurate’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Pollin (18/4/13)

Articles
UMass Student Exposes Serious Flaws in Harvard Economists’ Influential Study The Atlantic Wire, J.K. Trotter (18/4/13)
Shocking Paper Claims That Microsoft Excel Coding Error Is Behind The Reinhart-Rogoff Study On Debt Business Insider, Mike Konczal (16/4/13)
How a student took on eminent economists on debt issue – and won Economic Times of India (19/4/13)
Meet the 28-Year-Old Grad Student Who Just Shook the Global Austerity Movement New York Magazine, Kevin Roose (19/4/13)
An economist’s mea culpa: I relied on Reinhart and Rogoff Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal blog, Miles Kimball (22/4/13)
The Rogoff-Reinhart data scandal reminds us economists aren’t gods The Guardian, Heidi Moore (18/4/13)
Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs BBC News Magazine, Ruth Alexander (20/4/13)
George Osborne’s case for austerity has just started to wobble The Guardian, Polly Toynbee (18/4/13)
The error that could subvert George Osborne’s austerity programme The Guardian, Charles Arthur and Phillip Inman (18/4/13)
The Excel depression Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Krugman (19/4/13)
Europe: Retreat from austerity BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (23/4/13)

Guest post by Thomas Herndon
The Grad Student Who Took Down Reinhart And Rogoff Explains Why They’re Fundamentally Wrong Business Insider, Thomas Herndon (22/4/13)

Papers
Growth in a Time of Debt NBER working paper, Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff (January 2010)
Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogo ff PERI Working Paper 322, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (April 2013)

Questions

  1. What were the particular errors made by Reinhart and Rogoff?
  2. How has their paper been used as a basis for the design of macroeconomic policy?
  3. What are the limitations of using even accurate time-series data as the basis for policy measures?
  4. How might the work of Herndon change the direction of future macroeconomic policy?
  5. In his guest post in Business Insider (see link above), Herndon wrote: ‘The implication for policy is that, under particular circumstances, public debt can play a key role in overcoming a recession.’ What might this role be?
  6. Why might we have to be cautious in drawing policy conclusions from Herndon’s work?
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Roller coaster ride: or just bumping along the bottom?

The UK is officially back in recession: or to be more accurate, a double-dip recession.

The generally accepted definition of a recession is two or more quarters of negative growth in real GDP. According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the UK economy shrank by 0.2% in quarter 1, 2012, having shrunk by 0.3% in quarter 4, 2011.
(Click on the following link for a PowerPoint of the above chart: Double dip 2)

As you can see from the chart (click chart for a larger version), these declines are tiny compared with the recession of 2008/9. Nevertheless, with the eurozone economy slowing (Britain’s largest export market), and with cuts to government expenditure set to bite harder in the coming months, there are worries that there may be more quarters of negative growth to come.

So what are the causes of this double-dip recession? Are they largely external, in terms of flagging export markets; or are they internal? Is the new recession the direct result of the tight fiscal policy pursued by the Coalition government?

And what is to be done? Is there no option but to continue with the present policy – the government’s line? Or should the austerity measures be reined in? After all, as we saw in the last blog post (Economic stimulus, ‘oui’; austerity, ‘non’), the mood in many European countries is turning against austerity.

The following articles explore the causes and policy implications of the latest piece of bad news on the UK economy.

Articles
Double-dip recession a terrible blow for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession figures mark another bad day for George Osborne Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession: what the economists say Guardian (25/4/12)
Feared double dip recession becomes reality as British economy contracts again in first quarter of 2012 Daily Record (25/4/12)
Britain in double-dip recession as growth falls 0.2pc The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan and Szu Ping Chan (25/4/12)
Did the eurozone crisis cause the double-dip recession? Guardian, Polly Curtis (25/4/12)
UK’s double-dip recession Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/4/12)
UK is in ‘double dip’ recession FT Adviser, Rebecca Clancy and John Kenchington (25/4/12)
Flanders explains GDP figure BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
No recovery for UK: No let up for ONS BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (25/4/12)
Double-dip recession: There’s always fantasy island BBC News, Paul Mason (25/4/12)
UK double-dip recession to drag on into summer, economists warn The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (26/4/12)
George Osborne can stop the rot, but only by spending as he slashes The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (25/4/12)
Double dip has arrived – and Osborne is running out of escape routes Independent, Ben Chu (26/4/12)
Britain’s bosses tell the ONS: it’s bad, but not a recession Independent, Tom Bawden, Lucy Tobin , Gideon Spanier (26/4/12)
The Chancellor received plenty of warning Independent, David Blanchflower (26/5/12)

Data
Gross Domestic Product: Preliminary Estimate, Q1 2012 ONS (25/4/12)
Preliminary Estimate of GDP Time Series Dataset 2012 Q ONS (25/4/12)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (17/4/12)
Business and Consumer Surveys (for all individual EU countries and for the EU as a whole) European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs
Consumer Confidence Nationwide Building Society

Questions

  1. Assess the current state of the UK economy and its likely course over the coming few months.
  2. Why may looking at the business surveys provide a truer picture of the state of the UK economy than the official measure of GDP?
  3. Why has the UK economy gone back into recession?
  4. Compare the policy approaches of the Coalition government with those of the Labour opposition.
  5. How important is it for the UK to retain its AAA credit rating?
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Ireland’s bailout

In the post of the 17th November, Greece 2: This time it’s Ireland, we looked at the problems of the Irish economy in servicing its debts and whether it would need a bailout. Well, despite protesting that such a bailout would not be necessary, in the end events overtook the Irish government. International loss of confidence forced the government to accept a bailout package. After a weekend of talks, a deal was reached on 28 November between the Irish government, the ECB, the IMF, the European Commission and individual governments.

The deal involves loans totalling €85 billion. Of this, €35 billion will go towards supporting the Irish banking system. The remaining €50 billion will go to supporting government spending. The loans will carry an average interest rate of 5.8%, which is more than the 5.2% on the bailout loans to Greece, but considerably below the rates that Ireland would have to pay on the open market. Being loans, rather than grants, they only delay the problems of dealing with Ireland’s large debt, which has been rising rapidly and is predicted to be around 80% of GDP for 2010 (see Annex Table 62 in OECD Economic Outlook Statistical Annex). They thus provide Ireland with liquidity while it implements policies to reduce its debt.

Ireland itself has contributed €17.5 billion to the loan fund; of the rest, €22.5 billion will come from the IMF, while the European Union and bilateral European lenders, including the UK, Sweden and Denmark, have pledged a total of €45.0 billion, including £3.25 billion from the UK.

One of the main purposes of the loans is to reduce the likelihood of speculation against other relatively highly indebted countries in the EU, such as Portugal, Spain and Italy. The hope is that, by granting Ireland loans, the message would be that similar support would be made available to other countries as necessary. ‘Contagion’ would thereby be halted.

Podcasts and webcasts
Ireland’s €85bn bailout is best deal available, says PM Guardian webcast (29/11/10)
Interview with Jim O’Neill BBC News (29/11/10)
Irish deal ‘better than market rate’BBC Today Programme, Ajai Chopra (29/11/10)
Ireland bailout ‘doesn’t stop pressure building’ BBC Today Programme, Tony Creszenzi and Brian Hayes (29/11/10)

Articles
EU/IMF Irish bailout – the details FT Alphaville, Neil Hume (28/11/10)
Ireland rescue is not a game changer Financial Times, Mohamed El-Erian (29/11/10)
IMF insists Ireland got a ‘good deal’ Irish Times (29/11/10)
Can the eurozone afford its banks? BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (29/11/10)
Irish bailout leaves markets nervous for good reason CNN Business 360, Peter Morici (30/11/10)
Eurozone debt crisis deepens Times of Malta (30/11/10)
Will the Irish crisis spread to Italy? Vox, Paolo Manasse and Giulio Trigilia (29/11/10)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between liquidity and solvency solutions to sovereign debt problems.
  2. Is Ireland’s debt problem purely a sovereign one? Explain.
  3. What will determine whether the bailout for Ireland will halt contagion to other countries?
  4. Why might the implementation of an austerity package make the sovereign debt problem worse in the short to medium run?
  5. Will the Irish crisis spread to Italy?
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Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?

Economists are famous for disagreeing – as, of course, are politicians. And there is a lot of disagreement around at the moment. George Osborne is determined to cut Britain’s large public-sector deficit, and cut it quickly. This, argues the Coalition government and many economists, is necessary to maintain the UK’s AAA sovereign credit rating. This, in turn, will allow interest rates to be kept down and the international confidence will encourage investment. In short, the cut in aggregate demand by government would be more than compensated by a rise in aggregate demand elsewhere in the economy, and especially from investment and exports. By contrast, not cutting the deficit rapidly would undermine confidence. This would make it more expensive to borrow and would discourage inward investment.

Not so, say the opposition and many other economists. A contractionary fiscal policy will achieve just that – an economic contraction. In other words, there is a real danger of a double-dip recession. Far from encouraging investment, it will do just the opposite. Consumers, fearing falling incomes and rising unemployment, will cut back on spending. Businesses, fearing a fall in sales, will cut back on investment. Economic pessimism, and hence caution, will feed on themselves.

So who are right? The first two blogs by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s Economics Editor, look at the arguments on both sides. The third attempts to sum up. The other articles continue the debate. For example, the link to The Economist contains several contributions from commentators on either side of the debate. See also the earlier posting on this site, The ‘paradox of cuts’.

Articles
The case for Mr Osborne’s austerity BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/10)
The case against Mr Osborne’s austerity BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (8/9/10)
Austerity plans: Where do you stand? BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (10/9/10)
Are current deficit reduction plans likely to boost growth? The Economist debates, various invited guests
Debt and growth revisited Vox, Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (11/8/10)
Leading article: Mr Osborne should prepare a Plan B Independent (13/9/10)
Shock fall in UK retail sales adds to fears of double-dip recession Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/9/10)
Chancellor accused of £100bn economic growth gamble by Compass Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/9/10)
Double-dip recession: bulls and bears diverge over future economic prospects Guardian, Phillip Inman (16/9/10)
Speech by Mervyn King to TUC Congress TUC (15/9/10)
Barber, Blanchflower and the fake debate on double dip The Spectator, Ed Howker (14/9/10)

Confidence data
Consumer confidence Nationwide
ICAEW / Grant Thornton UK Business Confidence Monitor (BCM) ICAEW
Business and Consumer Surveys Economic and Financial Affairs, European Commission

Questions

  1. Summarise the arguments for the Coalition government’s programme of rapidly reducing the public-sector deficit.
  2. Summarise the arguments against the Coalition government’s programme of rapidly reducing the public-sector deficit.
  3. What factors are likely to determine whether there will be a double-dip recession as a result of the austerity programme?
  4. Why is it very hard to predict the effects of the austerity programme?
  5. How effective is an expansionary monetary policy likely to be in the context of a tightening fiscal policy?
  6. How important are other countries’ macroeconomic policies in determining the success of George Osborne’s policies?
  7. How similar to or different from other recessions has the recent one been? What are the policy implications of these similarities/differences?
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