Tag: European Central Bank

European Central Bank Research Shows that Government Spending Undermines Economic Performance

Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.

So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.

…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970-2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).

There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).

The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.

The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth-maximizing size of government.

… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.

Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.

Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non-democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.

The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.

Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.

…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.

This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.

At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers - at the very least - need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.

But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.

The Euro Crisis in Prose and Poetry

The European debt crisis is inspiring public radio to literary analysis. Last week NPR’s Planet Money put the French-German relationship into a “threepenny opera”:

All

Everyone is counting on you
You’ve got the money
We’ve got the debt (Oh yes, we’ve got a lot of debt!)
And do we need a bailout—you bet

Germany

Zat’s it, I’ve had enough
Looks like it’s time now for me to leave…

France

Oh?

Germany

Vhy is ze door locked? You must let me out.

France

Dear when the times are tough
It’s better to give zan to receive

Then Monday Marketplace Radio turned to classics professor Emily Allen Hornblower and economist Bill Lastrapes to discuss Greek debt as classical tragedy—Oedipus? The ant and the grasshopper?

Loyal Cato readers will recognize Bill Lastrapes as the coauthor of the much-discussed Cato Working Paper “Has the Fed Been a Failure?

And then, if you prefer prose and sober analysis to literary analogies, let me recommend Holman Jenkins’s perceptive column on why Europe hasn’t solved its crisis yet, which unfortunately appeared in the less-read Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal. (OK, not less read than Cato-at-Liberty, but probably less read than the weekday Journal.)

Neither leader has an incentive to sacrifice what have become vital and divergent interests to produce a credible bailout plan for Europe. To simplify, German voters don’t want to bail out French banks, and the French government can’t afford to bail out French banks, when and if the long-awaited Greek default is allowed to happen….

There is another savior in the wings, of course, the European Central Bank. But the ECB has no incentive to betray in advance its willingness to get France and Germany off the hook by printing money to keep Europe’s heavily indebted governments afloat. Yet all know this is the outcome politicians are stalling for. This is the outcome markets are relying on, and why they haven’t crashed.

All are waiting for some market ruction hairy enough that the central bank will cast aside every political and legal restraint in order to save the euro….

And then the crisis will be over? Not by a long shot.

All these “solvent” countries and their banks will be dependent on the ECB to keep them “solvent,” a reality that can only lead to entrenched inflation across the European economy. That is, unless these governments undertake heroic reforms quickly to restore themselves to the good graces of the global bond market so they can stand up again without the ECB’s visible help.

It’s just conceivable that this might happen—that countries on the ECB life-support might put their nose to the grindstone to make good on their debts, held by ECB and others. Or they might just resume the game of chicken with German taxpayers, albeit in a new form, implicitly demanding that Germany bail out the ECB before the bank is forced thoroughly to debauch the continent’s common currency, the euro.

Why Slovakia May Not Support Europe’s Bailout Plan

Slovakia is set to vote today on the European bailout plan and may well become a holdout. As my colleague David Boaz noted yesterday, this is due to Slovakia’s libertarian speaker of the house, Richard Sulik, who spoke at a Cato Institute conference in Bratislava last year, and who opposes bailouts of Greece and other EU countries based on sound ethical, political, and economic reasoning. Greece is already bankrupt and a bailout will only add to the country’s debt; an EU “rescue” will continue to create moral hazard, thus encouraging bad policies by reckless governments; relatively poorer and better behaved Slovakia should not be forced to support the irresponsible governments of richer European countries; the EU’s response to the Greek debt crisis has led to blatant violations of EU and European Central Bank rules, thus undermining democratic principles and the EU itself; the scare stories of not approving the bailout should not be believed; the best solution is for Greece is to declare bankruptcy once and for all.

In this document by his Freedom and Solidarity Party, Richard Sulik lays out his party’s opposition to the bailout fund. It is consistent with the views of other leading scholars including that of John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and a Cato adjunct scholar) as expressed in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on how to save the Euro.

Sulik has tapped into popular sentiment among Europeans about the “democracy deficit,” or huge gap between the designs of Europe’s ruling elites and the desires of the region’s citizens. The widespread (and accurate) perception of Eurocrats imposing their agenda on Europe to the benefit of their cronies (e.g., big business, labor unions, and politicians in power) and at the expense of the majority is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The Slovak government, which supports the bailout, may well fall on account of this vote, but the prime minister has already indicated that the vote on the bailout fund will be held repeatedly until it is approved. (No doubt there will be little possibility of a repeat vote repealing the bill.)

On a related note, a new Finnish think tank, Libera, provides more evidence that Europeans are rethinking big government. It published a study today which reassesses the record of the Swedish welfare state and praises the numerous market reforms that country has introduced out of necessity since the 1990s.

Spending Restraint and Red Ink

I’m not a big fan of central banks, and I definitely don’t like multilateral bureaucracies, so I almost feel guilty about publicizing two recent studies published by the European Central Bank. But when such an institution puts out research that unambiguously makes the case for smaller government, it’s time to sit up and take notice. And since these studies largely echo the findings of recent research by the International Monetary Fund, we may have reached a point where even the establishment finally understands that government is too big.

The first study looks at real-world examples of debt reduction in 15 European nations and investigates the fiscal policies that worked and didn’t work. Entitled “Major Public Debt Reductions: Lessons From The Past, Lessons For The Future,” the report unambiguously concludes that spending restraint is the right way to reduce deficits and debt. Tax increases, by contrast, are not successful. The study doesn’t highlight this result, but the data clearly show that “revenue increases do not seem to have induced debt reductions, whereas cuts in primary expenditure seem to have contributed significantly in the case of major debt reductions.”

Here’s a key excerpt:

[T]his paper estimates several specifications of a logistic probability model to assess which factors determine the probability of a major debt reduction in the EU-15 during the period 1985-2009. Our results are three-fold. First, major debt reductions are mainly driven by decisive and lasting (rather than timid and short-lived) fiscal consolidation efforts focused on reducing government expenditure, in particular, cuts in social benefits and public wages. Revenue-based consolidations seem to have a tendency to be less successful. Second, robust real GDP growth also increases the likelihood of a major debt reduction because it helps countries to “grow their way out” of indebtedness. Here, the literature also points to a positive feedback effect with decisive expenditure-based fiscal consolidation because this type of consolidation appears to foster growth, in particular in times of severe fiscal imbalances.

The last part of this passage is especially worth highlighting. The authors found that reducing spending promotes faster economic growth. In other words, Obama did exactly the wrong thing with his so-called stimulus. The U.S. economy would have enjoyed much better performance if the burden of spending had been reduced rather than increased. One can only hope the statists at the Congressional Budget Office learn from this research.

Equally interesting, the report notes that reducing social welfare spending and reducing the burden of the bureaucracy are the two most effective ways of lowering red ink:

The estimation results indicate that expenditure-based consolidation which mainly concentrates on cuts in social benefits and government wages is more likely to lead to a major debt reduction. A significant decline in social benefits or public wages vis-a-vis the overall decline in the primary expenditure will increase the probability of a major debt reduction by 31 and 26 percent, respectively.

The other study takes a different approach, looking at the poor fiscal position of European nations and showing what would have happened if governments had imposed some sort of cap on government spending. Entitled “Towards Expenditure Rules And Fiscal Sanity In The Euro Area,” this report finds that restraining spending (what the study refers to as a “neutral expenditure policy”) would have generated much better results. 

Here are the main findings:

[T]he study assesses the impact of the fiscal stance on primary expenditure ratios and public debt ratios and, thus, provides a measure of prudence or imprudence of past expenditure policies. The study finds that on the basis of real time rules, expenditure and debt ratios in 2009 for the euro area aggregate would not have been much different with neutral expenditure policies than actually experienced.

…Primary expenditure ratios would have been 2-3½ pp [percentage points] of GDP lower for the euro area aggregate, 3-5pp of GDP for the euro area without Germany and up to over 10 pp of GDP lower in certain countries if expenditure policies had been neutral.

There’s a bit of academic jargon in that passage, but the authors are basically saying that some sort of annual limit on the growth of government spending is a smart fiscal strategy. And such rules, depending on the country, would have reduced the burden of government spending by as much as 10 percentage points of GDP. To put that figure in context, reducing the burden of government spending by that much in the United States would balance the budget overnight.

There are several ways of achieving such a goal. The report suggests a spending limit rule based on the growth of the overall economy, which is similar to a proposal being developed in the United States by Senator Corker of Tennessee. But it also could mean something akin to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, but intelligently revised to focus on annual spending rather than annual deficits. Some sort of limit on annual spending, perhaps based on population plus inflation like the old Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, also could be successful.

There are a couple of ways of skinning this cat. What’s important is that there needs to be a formula that limits how much spending can grow, and this formula should be designed so that the private sector grows faster than the public sector. And to make sure the formula is successful, it should be enforced by automatic spending cuts, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman-Hollings sequester provision.