The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.
The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.
And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.
So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?
There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.
The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.
Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.
This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.
There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.
As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Statistics database European Central Bank
- What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
- How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
- What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
- Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
- What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
- Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
- How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
There has been an interesting debate recently about whether the austerity policies being pursued in the UK are the correct ones. What would have happened if the government had pursued a more expansionary policy? Would the increase in borrowing, at least in the short term, have triggered a financial crisis?
Without austerity policies, would the eurozone crisis have led to a collapse in investor confidence in the UK, especially if Greece had been forced out of the euro?
On the one side, Kenneth Rogoff argues that increasing the UK’s budget deficit would have been dangerous and could have led to a flight from the pound. Generally, but with some reservations, he supports the fiscal policies that have been pursued by the Coalition.
I am certainly not arguing that the UK or other advanced countries handled the post-crisis period perfectly. There should have been more infrastructure spending, even more aggressive monetary policy and probably more ruthless bank restructuring. But there has to be a balance between stimulus and stability. To assume we always knew things would calm down, and to retrospectively calibrate policy advice accordingly, is absurd
Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis challenge Rogoff’s arguments. Paul Krugman uses a version of the IS-LM model to analyse the effect of a loss of international confidence in the UK following problems in the eurozone and worries about excessive UK borrowing.
In the model, the LM curve (labelled MP in Krugman’s diagrams) illustrates the effect of an increase in real GDP on interest rates with a particular monetary policy (e.g. an inflation target or a Taylor rule, which involves a mix of two policy objectives: an inflation target and real GDP). As GDP rises, putting upward pressure on inflation, so the central bank will raise interest rates. Hence, like the traditional LM curve, the monetary-policy related LM curve will slope upwards, as shown in the diagram.
Initial equilibrium GDP is Y0. The rate of interest is at the minimum level, r0 (i.e. the rate of 0.5% that the Monetary Policy Committee has set since January 2009). This, in the model, is the liquidity trap, where any increase in money supply (a rightward shift in the LM curve) will have no effect on interest rates or GDP.
In Rogoff’s analysis of a crisis triggered by excessive borrowing and problems in the eurozone, the IS curve will shift to the left (as illustrated by curve IS1) as capital flows from the UK and confidence collapses. Real GDP will fall to Y1. This will be the outcome of fiscal expansion in the world of the early 2010s.
Krugman argues that the opposite will occur. The outflow of capital will drive down the exchange rate. This will lead to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports. Aggregate demand thus rises and the IS curve will shift to the right (e.g. to IS2 in the diagram. Real GDP will rise (e.g. to Y2 in the diagram). If the rise in aggregate demand is sufficient, the economy will rise out of the liquidity trap and interest rates will rise (e.g. to r2 in the diagram).
Not surprisingly, Rogoff challenges this analysis, as you will see if you read his second paper below. He doesn’t criticise the model per se, but challenges Krugman’s assumptions. For example, a depreciation of sterling by some 20% since 2008 doesn’t seem to have had a major effect in stimulating exports (see the chart in the news item, A balancing act). And exports could well have declined if the eurozone economy had collapsed, given that exports to the eurozone account for around 44% of total UK exports.
Rogoff’s assumptions in turn can be challenged. Simon Wren-Lewis argues that, provided a credible long-term plan for deficit reduction is in place, maintaining a fiscal stimulus in the short run, to keep the recovery going that was beginning to emerge in 2010, would help to increase investor confidence, not undermine it. And, with a policy of quantitative easing, which involves the Bank of England buying central government debt, there is no problem of a lack of demand for UK gilts by the private sector.
What is clear from this debate is the willingness of both sides to accept points made by the other. It is an extremely civilised debate. In fact, it could be seen as a model of how academic debate should be conducted. There is none of the ‘shouting’ that has charaterised much of the pro- and anti-austerity lobbying since the financial crisis burst onto the world stage.
Britain should not take its credit status for granted Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (3/10/13)
Ken Rogoff on UK austerity mainly macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (3/10/13)
Phantom Crises (Wonkish) The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman (3/10/13)
Three Wrongs do not make a Right Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (7/10/13)
Is George Osborne really a hero of global finance? The Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (24/10/13)
- Explain how the policy-dependent LM curve illustrated in the diagram is derived.
- What would cause the policy-dependent LM curve to shift?
- Explain what is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’. Why does being in a liquidity trap make monetary policy ineffective?
- How would you determine whether or not the UK is currently in a liquidity trap?
- How is the level of (a) public-sector debt and (b) private sector debt owed overseas likely to affect the confidence of investors concerning the effects of an expansionary fiscal policy?
- Compare the UK’s total external debt with that of other countries (see the following tables from Principal Global Indicators, hosted by the IMF: External debt and Short-term external debt).
- What insurance policy (if any) does the UK have to protect against market panic about the viability of UK debt?
- What areas of agreement are there between Rogoff on the one side and Krugman and Wren-Lewis on the other?
The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.
Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.
This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.
Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.
But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.
But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.
Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.
A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Is Lord Keynes back in Brussels? The Conversation, Fabrizio Carmignani (31/5/13)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)
- Explain what is meant by Say’s Law and its implication for macroeconomic policy.
- Why have many governments, including the UK government, been reluctant to pursue expansionary fiscal policies?
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? What is the way out of this trap?
- In the first article above, Eduardo Porter argues that ‘moral views are getting in the way of reason’. What does he mean by this?
- Explain what are meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’ and the ‘fallacy of composition’. How are these two concepts relevant to the debate over austerity policies?
- What are the dangers in pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
- What are the dangers in not pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
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!
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)
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)
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 Rogoff PERI Working Paper 322, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (April 2013)
- What were the particular errors made by Reinhart and Rogoff?
- How has their paper been used as a basis for the design of macroeconomic policy?
- What are the limitations of using even accurate time-series data as the basis for policy measures?
- How might the work of Herndon change the direction of future macroeconomic policy?
- 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?
- Why might we have to be cautious in drawing policy conclusions from Herndon’s work?
According to the first estimate by the Office for National Statistics, the UK economy shrank by 0.3% in the final three months of 2012. This means that over the whole year growth was flat.
The biggest contributor to the fall in GDP in Q4 was the production industries, which include manufacturing. Output of the production sector fell by 1.8% in Q4. Construction sector output, by contrast, was estimated to have increased by 0.3%. Service sector output was flat. The chart below shows quarterly and annual growth in the UK from 2007 to 2012. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Latest estimates by the IMF are that the UK economy will grow by 1.0% in 2013 – well below the long-term growth in potential output (see also the last blog, High hopes in the Alps). But some forecasters are predicting that real GDP will continue to fall for at least one more quarter, which means that the economy would then be in a ‘triple-dip recession’.
Not surprisingly politicians have interpreted the statistics very differently, as have economists. The government, while recognising that the UK faces a ‘very difficult economic situation’, argues that now is not the time to change course and that by continuing with policies to reduce the deficit the economy will be placed on a firmer footing for sustained long-term growth
The opposition claims that the latest figures prove that the government’s policies are not working and that continuing attempts to bear down on the deficit are depressing aggregate demand and thereby keeping the economy depressed.
The following webcasts, podcasts and articles expand on these arguments. Try to be dispassionate in using economic analysis and evidence to assess the arguments.
Webcasts and podcasts
Video Summary: Gross Domestic Product Preliminary Estimate, Q4 2012 Media Briefing (Click here for the following Q&A) ONS (25/1/13)
Triple dip on the menu? Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy and Faisal Islam (25/1/13)
Getting and spending – the key to recovery Channel 4 News, Cathy Newman (25/1/13)
UK economy shrinks by 0.3% in the last three months of 2012 BBC News, Hugh Pym (25/1/13)
Danny Alexander on GDP figures and economic plans BBC Daily Politics (25/1/13)
Osborne defends government’s deficit reduction plan BBC News (25/1/13)
Ed Balls: UK economy urgently needs a ‘Plan B’ BBC News (25/1/13)
UK heads for triple dip as GDP contracts 0.3pc The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (25/1/13)
Economist: Government may need to rethink its fiscal policy The Telegraph, Jim O’Neill (25/1/13)
Has austerity really been tried in Britain? BBC Today Programme, Jonathan Portes and Andrew Lilico (29/1/13)
UK GDP: Economy shrank at end of 2012 BBC News (25/1/13)
UK GDP shrinks by 0.3% in fourth quarter: what the economists say The Guardian (25/1/13)
New Bank of England head Mark Carney hints at big shift in policy The Guardian (26/1/13)
The Bank of England, the chancellor, and the target BBC News. Stephanie Flanders (29/1/13)
The Entire World Of Economics Is Secretly Thankful To The UK Right Now Business Insider, Joe Weisenthal (26/1/13)
Gross Domestic Product: Preliminary Estimate, Q4 2012 ONS (25/1/13)
Video Summary: Gross Domestic Product Preliminary Estimate, Q4 2012 ONS (25/1/13)
Preliminary Estimate of GDP – Time Series Dataset 2012 Q4 ONS (25/1/13)
Business and Consumer Surveys DG ECFIN
- What are the reasons for the decline in GDP in 2012 Q4??
- Examine how likely it is that the UK will experience a triple-dip recession.
- What measures could be adopted to increase consumer and business confidence?
- If there is substantial spare capacity, is expansionary fiscal policy the best means of achieving economic growth?
- What additional monetary policy measures could be adopted to stimulate economic growth?
- Find out what has happened to the UK’s public-sector deficit and debt over the past three years. Explain what has happened.