Tag: eurozone

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous. 

<--break->There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.

Can We Have An Evidence-Based Debate about the Future of the IMF?

On Saturday, March 30, the New York Times ran a curious editorial about the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The piece makes the case for a quick ratification of IMF’s quota reform by the United States, which it pictures as being in America’s interest. Unfortunately, the article is somewhat casual when it comes to the evidence it presents in support of its argument.

Firstly, the authors claim that the IMF

“has helped stabilize the global economy, most recently by providing loans to troubled European countries like Greece and Ireland.”

It is far from obvious that the repeated bailouts to Greece, in which the IMF has participated, have done much to calm the financial markets or to help the country’s economy. Recall that Greece is still going through a recession deeper than the Great Depression, with youth unemployment at around 60 percent, and no signs of recovery.

Secondly, there is the following assertion:

“[T]he fund’s capital […] has fallen sharply as a percentage of the global economy in the last decade.”

That is misleading as it does not take into consideration the increased use of the ‘new arrangements to borrow,’ (NAB) through which the Fund’s lending capacity was tripled in 2009, from $250 billion to $750 billion. That represented a historically unprecedented hike in the amount of resources available to any international organization.

Thirdly, the statement that the increase in quotas will happen “without increasing America’s financial commitment to the organization” is disingenuous. While the increase in quotas is to be accompanied by a reduction in the use of NAB’s – making it appear fiscally neutral on surface – the deployment of the NAB’s is accompanied by a stringent approval procedure, whereas the quotas can be deployed towards various lending purposes at the Fund’s discretion. Greater reliance on quota funding would thus enable the Fund to make bigger claims on the public purse, with less accountability.

A debate about the future of the IMF is long overdue in this country. But it should be a debate based on a careful examination of the Fund’s track record in mitigating financial crises around the world. To flatly assert, like the editorial does, that “[i]ncreasing the fund’s resources will ensure that it can respond quickly to another wave of turmoil in Europe or elsewhere” does not do the job. If anything, that claim - like much of the editorial - only strains credulity.

The European Commission’s Silent Power Grab

Last week, the European Commission issued an inconspicuously looking seven-page note on economic policy coordination, addressed to the European Parliament and the European Council. Although its publication has attracted scarcely any attention, the document has far-reaching implications. The introduction states, in an unapologetic tone, that:

the Commission considers it important that national plans for any major economic policy reforms are assessed and discussed at EU-level before final decisions are taken at the national level. (p. 2, emphasis added)

While European institutions have traditionally been involved in economic policymaking, their mandate is limited to policing compliance with the rules of the common market and those of the monetary union—with mixed results, one would hasten to add.

The wording of last week’s paper goes way beyond that narrow mandate. While it stipulates that “the process should fully respect national decision-making powers,” (p. 5) it would effectively empower European institutions to harass prospective European reformers in countries that decide to join the scheme. Not that many countries would have a choice—for Eurozone members, there would be a binding requirement to participate in this process of “ex ante coordination.”

Even under the most charitable reading, this would create an additional layer of slow-moving bureaucracy with the potential of delaying reforms. And if “windows of opportunity” for specific economic reforms are limited, it would necessarily imply that certain efficiency-enhancing reforms would be derailed. Arguably, if Slovak or Estonian finance ministers had to justify their tax reforms to their counterparts from France or Germany, the flat tax revolution in Eastern Europe would have never happened.

And why should economic reforms be coordinated across Europe at all? Here’s one argument given by the paper:

 Product, services and labour market reforms as well as certain tax reforms may affect employment and growth in the implementing Member State, and hence the demand for products and services from other Member States. This is because a reform may also have a positive or negative impact on the reforming Member State’s price and non-price competitiveness. (p. 3)

Clearly, cross-border spillovers exist. But the same spillovers exist on a competitive market—whenever a firm changes its strategy or innovates, it can exercise “a positive or negative impact” on sales made by other companies. Yet very few would advocate coordination of innovation or business decisions—partly because the benefits of competition on product or service markets are patently obvious to most people. If anything, the benefits of competition are even more important in the choice of institutions and policies. And that’s why the sneaky power grab by European institutions has to be stopped.

Cutting the Government—Greek Style

After much wrangling and consternation, the Greek government has agreed to the latest round of “drastic austerity measures,” the most significant of which is the promise to cut 15,000 government jobs. In return, the Greeks will receive 130 billion euros ($170 billion) of European bailout money to keep the Greek state afloat and, crucially, in the eurozone. That, anyway, is the plan.

The leaders of the political parties that “support” the Greek technocratic (i.e. unelected) government still have to approve the cuts, which they might not do because the unions threaten a general strike. But, there are additional problems as well. First, many of those 15,000 government workers will likely come from the ranks of those who are close to retirement. While the number of government workers will thus shrink, the government’s unsustainable social security burden will worsen. Second, the government workforce (i.e. public servants and employees of the Greek parastatals) account for over 22 percent of the Greek labor force of 4.4 million. That means that the number of people working for the government will decline from 968,000 to 953,000—a reduction of 1.6 percent. And that is what amounts to a “drastic austerity measure” in Greece!

Charles Murray in Slovakia

Cato co-sponsored a successful conference in Bratislava, Slovakia last week with Trend business magazine, “Slovakia at the Crossroads of Reform.” At a time when the crisis in the eurozone is exposing the unsustainable nature of the European welfare state – and one month before general elections in the country – the event brought together international experts and political and opinion leaders from a broad ideological spectrum, including from the newly formed classical liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity, which is now polling at 10-11 percent. Here’s a video of Charles Murray’s timely keynote address on “Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Europe: Either Bismarck or the Euro, but Not Both

The Maastricht Treaty requires countries in the eurozone not to exceed a public debt of 60% of GDP. Well, now almost all of them have an official debt exceeding that ceiling. But the situation is immensely worse because European states also have huge, and largely hidden, unfunded liabilities arising from their pension and health systems. According to a 2009 study by my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale, the true debt of the 25 European countries is, on average, 434% of GDP. And the treaties that underpin European integration do not say a word about such debt.

Greece’s true debt is 875% of GDP and its current problems are just the first act of the coming fiscal bankruptcy of Europe. In my 2004 essay “Will the Pension Time Bomb Sink the Euro?”, I concluded that Europe would end up facing a critical crossroads: either leave the Euro or abandon the Bismarckian welfare state paradigm. As it turns out, the DNA of the pay-as-you-go system allows for political manipulation and the consequent inflation of pension and health “rights.” This, exacerbated by falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, will lead to increasing fiscal deficits, unpayable debt, state insolvency, defaults, covert age wars, and the failure of the Eurozone project.

The welfare state has really become an arbitrary “entitlement state,” where everyone uses the state to rob someone else, and politicians from the right and the left play the transfer game to win elections. This crisis may serve to reveal the true nature and enormous flaws of the welfare state. Sooner or later, Europe will have to dismantle it and move toward a paradigm of personal responsability – that is, a system of personal accounts for pensions, health and unemployment benefits.