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?
At a cost of €1 trillion to EU states, tax evasion is undoubtedly an area in need of attention. With government finances in deficit across the world, part of the gap could be plugged by preventing tax revenues from going unpaid. Well-known companies and individuals have been accused of tax evasion (and avoidance), but part of the problem is the existence of countries that make such activities possible.
Tax havens not only offer favourable tax rates, but also have in place regulations that prevent the effective exchange of information. That is, they are able to keep the identity and income information of depositors a private affair and are not required to share that information with other governments. This means that other tax authorities are unable to demand the tax revenue from income earned, when it is held in some of these countries. This can deprive the government’s coffers of substantial amounts of money.
In 2000, the OECD produced a report naming so-called ‘uncooperative tax havens’, including Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Liberia. Since then, all nations on this list have pledged their cooperation and been removed and in a recent step, Andorra has announced a proposal to implement its first ever income tax. This move is partly in response to pressures from EU governments to tackle tax evasion. Furthermore, talks between the finance ministers of tax havens, such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein have been agreed with the aim of improving the flow of bank account information and thus combating tax evasion. The Council of the European Union said:
The decision represents an important step in the EU’s efforts to clamp down on tax evasion and tax fraud”
Countries, such as Switzerland (a non-EU member) are likely to find requests for information difficult to ignore, if they want to have access to EU financial markets. However, any concessions on information provision will come at a significant cost for a country that has long regarded its banking secrecy as an ‘honourable policy.
Reforming policy on tax havens is essential, not only to help tackle tax evasion and thus government deficits, but also to generate investment into countries that don’t offer such favourable tax rates. Investors naturally want to invest in those countries with low tax rates and as such, could it be that countries like the UK suffer from a loss of investment and that the only way to encourage it is to offer similarly low tax rates? International agreement is certainly needed to tackle the worldwide issue of tax evasion and at the moment, it seems as though pressure is building on secretive countries. The following articles consider this controversial issue.
Clock ticks on Swiss banking secrecy BBC News, Imogen Foulkes (21/5/13)
Andorra bows to EU pressure to introduce income tax The Telegraph, Fiona Govan (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for first time BBC News (2/6/13)
Andorra to introduce income tax for the first time Economy Watch (3/6/13)
Swiss have no choice but to bow to US ultimatum – Ackermann Reuters, Katharina Bart> (3/6/13)
Austria out front as EU zeroes in on tax evasion The Budapest Times (29/5/13)
EU to start talks with non-EU countries on tax evasion BBC News (14/5/13)
- What is tax evasion?
- Using game theory, explain why an international agreement on tax evasion might be needed?
- When an income tax is imposed in Andorra, what will be the impact on government revenues?
- How might the labour supply incentive change once an income tax is imposed?
- How do tax havens affect investment in other countries?
- Is there an argument that countries such as the UK should cut its tax rates to encourage investment?
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?
A keenly awaited Budget, but what should we have expected? Chancellor Alistair Darling had warned that it wouldn’t be a ‘giveaway’ budget. The aim to cut the budget deficit in half over 4 years still remains and the UK economy is certainly not out of the woods yet.
You’ve probably seen the debate amongst politicians and economists over what should happen to government spending and it might be that the lower than expected net borrowing for 2009-2010 provides a much needed boost to the economy. With the election approaching, it seemed likely that some of this unexpected windfall would be spent. The following articles consider some key issues ahead of the 2010 Budget.
Budget 2010: Alistair Darling’s election budget BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/3/10)
Build-up to the Budget Deloitte, UK March 2010
Pre-Budget Report: What Alistair Darling has announced before Guardian, Katie Allen (9/12/09)
Budget 2010: Darling warns of ‘no giveaway’ BBC News (11/3/10)
FTSE climbs ahead of UK Budget Financial Times, Neil Dennis (24/3/10)
Bank bonus tax could net Treasury £2bn, E&Y says Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (24/3/10)
Alistair Darling set for stamp duty move BBC News (24/3/10)
Labour has run out of steam, says David Cameron Guardian, Haroon Siddique (24/3/10)
Ten things to look out for in the 2010 Budget Scotsman (24/3/10)
Sammy Wilson predicts ‘neutral budget’ BBC News, Ireland (24/3/10)
Do the right thing, Darling Guardian (24/3/10)
What do we want from the Budget? Daily Politics (23/3/10)
Budget boost for Labour as inflation falls to 3% TimesOnline (24/3/10)
- Why has the FTSE climbed ahead of the Budget?
- Why is there a possibility of a rise in stamp duty again? To what extent do you think it will be effective?
- Net borrowing for 2009/10 is expected to be lower than forecast. What should happen to this so-called ‘windfall’?
- What is expected from the Budget 2010? Once the Budget has taken place, think about the extent to which expectations were fulfilled.
- Why are excise duties on goods such as taxes and alcohol likely to be more effective than those on other goods?