Tag: germany

A Fiscal Lesson from Germany

Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

Pushing Ukraine Back to the Soviet Union?

Ukraine scored a historic upset in their first Euro 2012 soccer match yesterday, creating a rare celebratory and unifying atmosphere in the country. There had been little good news out of the Ukraine leading up to its co-hosting—with Poland—of the continent’s major soccer championship. Despite achieving independence two decades ago, Ukraine’s political development remains stunted. Ironically, European governments risk pushing Kiev away while attempting to promote democracy there. Such as by Berlin’s threat to block a new political and trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.

There’s not a lot to choose from among Ukraine’s leading politicians. However, President Viktor Yanukovich appears to be misusing his power to punish rival Yulia Tymoshenko for political revenge.

In response, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that her nation would boycott the 2012 European Championships. Last month German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also threatened to kill Kiev’s Association Agreement and the Common Economic Space Treaty with the EU. Ukraine is a member of the Eastern Partnership initiative, created three years ago by Brussels.

Ukraine is not the only troubled member of the EP:  Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova all have serious human rights issues. However, Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations explained that while Ukraine is not the worst offender among the group, it “is the biggest source of disappointment and bad news.” As a result, warned Jana Kobzova, also at the Council, “More and more EU states are asking why should we want the Ukraine closer to the EU when its political system is increasingly incompatible with the values the EU preaches?”

It’s a fair question, but the alternative is Kiev slipping closer to orbit around Russia. Yanukovich originally was viewed as Moscow’s candidate, since he represented Russophone speakers. However, in office he put his nation first. He has refused to join Russia’s Customs Union (which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan) and turn over control of Ukraine’s natural gas to Moscow. But because of resistance in Brussels, Yanukovich last month declared a “strategic pause” in Ukraine’s relations with the EU. In fact, Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishenko said his nation would no longer seek full EU membership.

Germany and the other EU members should moderate their ambitions. None of the Eastern Partnership members were on the fast-track to EU membership. The systems were too different and the geographic distances were too great. Even before Kiev disappointed its European friends people were talking of a 20-year accession process. And enlargement fatigue had not yet afflicted Brussels, with disappointment over the performance of Bulgaria and Romania, resistance to Turkey’s membership, and reluctance to quickly include the rest of the Balkans.

Instead of viewing Ukraine as a candidate member to be transformed, the Europeans should treat Ukraine as an errant friend to be reformed. Closer ties should be developed, allowing more criticism to be delivered with greater effect. The association agreement between the EU and Kiev obviously is important economically to Ukraine. It also may be the best vehicle to help pull Kiev back to a more democratic course.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

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.

The Lives of Others 2.0

Tattoo it on your forearm—or better, that of your favorite legislator—for easy reference in the next debate over wiretapping: government surveillance is a security breach—by definition and by design. The latest evidence of this comes from Germany, where there’s growing furor over a hacker group’s allegations that government-designed Trojan Horse spyware is not only insecure, but packed with functions that exceed the limits of German law:

On Saturday, the CCC (the hacker group) announced that it had been given hard drives containing “state spying software,” which had allegedly been used by German investigators to carry out surveillance of Internet communication. The organization had analyzed the software and found it to be full of defects. They also found that it transmitted information via a server located in the United States. As well as its surveillance functions, it could be used to plant files on an individual’s computer. It was also not sufficiently protected, so that third parties with the necessary technical skills could hijack the Trojan horse’s functions for their own ends. The software possibly violated German law, the organization said.

Back in 2004–2005, software designed to facilitate police wiretaps was exploited by unknown parties to intercept the communications of dozens of top political officials in Greece. And just last year, we saw an attack on Google’s e-mail system targeting Chinese dissidents, which some sources have claimed was carried out by compromising a backend interface designed for law enforcement.

Any communications architecture that is designed to facilitate outsider access to communications—for all the most noble reasons—is necessarily more vulnerable to malicious interception as a result. That’s why technologists have looked with justified skepticism on periodic calls from intelligence agencies to redesign data networks for their convenience. At least in this case, the vulnerability is limited to specific target computers on which the malware has been installed. Increasingly, governments want their spyware installed at the switches—making for a more attractive target, and more catastrophic harm in the event of a successful attack.

Are Mortgages Cheaper in the U.S.?

As Congress and the White House continue to debate the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, one of the oft heard concerns is that if we eliminate all the various mortgage subsidies in our system, then the cost of a mortgage will increase.  There certainly is a basic logic to that concern.  After all, why have subsidies if they don’t lower the price of the subsidized good.  Of course some, if not all, of said subsidy could be eaten up by the providers/producers of that good.

All this begs the question, with all the subsidies we have for mortgage finance, are mortgages actually cheaper in the U.S.?  While not perfect, one way of answering that question is to look at mortgage rates in other countries.   Although every developed country has some sort of government intervention in their mortgage market, almost all have considerably less support then that provided by the U.S.  (For a useful comparison of international differences see Michael Lea’s paper).

The European Mortgage Federation regularly collects information on mortgage pricing by EU countries.   The latest complete annual data from the EMF’s Hypostat database is for 2009, with at least a decade of historical data.

A quick glance reveals that mortgage rates in most European countries are not all that different than rates in the U.S.  For instance in 2009, the U.S. 30 year mortgage rate was, on average, 5.04; whereas mortgages in France averaged 4.6 and those in Germany averaged 4.29.  In the UK, the average was 4.34.

Part of this difference is driven by product type.  For instance, in France, most mortgages tend to be 15 year, which one would expect to be cheaper than a 30 year.  But the French 15 year rate of 4.6 isn’t all that different from the current U.S. 15 year rate of 4.1.  As lending rates are usually bench-marked off the rate on government debt, part of the slightly higher rate in some European countries is due to their higher government borrowing rate.  If we instead measure mortgage costs as a spread over government funding costs (as reported by the OECD), then many European countries look more affordable than the U.S.  For instance, German mortgages price about 100 basis points over long-term German govt debt; whereas U.S. mortgages price about 140 basis points over long-term U.S. government debt.

I don’t expect these numbers to settle the debate.  A variety of other costs, such as points paid or required downpayments, differ dramatically across countries.  Unfortunately that data does not seem to be readily available.  What the preceding comparison does suggest, however, is that even without Fannie and Freddie, U.S. mortgage rates aren’t necessarily going to be a lot higher.

Will the Federal Reserve’s Easy-Money Policy Turn the United States into a Global Laughingstock?

Early in the Obama Administration, there was an amusing/embarrassing incident when Chinese students laughed at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

Greek Chutzpah

There’s an old joke that if you owe a bank $10,000, you have a problem, but if you owe a bank $10,000,000, the bank has a problem. The Greek government certainly seems to have that attitude. Short-sighted and corrupt politicians in Athens have spent their nation into a fiscal ditch and they now want to mooch from both the IMF and other European nations (especially Germany). The German Prime Minister (if only for political reasons) is talking tough, saying that Greece should do more to reduce subsidies and handouts. Why should Germans work until age 67, after all, so Greeks can enjoy overpaid government jobs and retire at age 61? So what is the response from the Greeks? Amazingly, one of the politicians had the gall to say his nation “cannot accept” further wage cuts. Here’s an excerpt from the Daily Telegraph:

It is far from clear whether Athens will agree to further austerity as strikes hit the country day after day. Andreas Loverdos, Greece’s labour minister, said the EU-IMF team wants further wages cuts. “We cannot accept that.” Greece knows it can opt for default at any time, setting off an EMU-wide crisis and bringing down Europe’s banks. It also knows that key figures in the Bundestag favour debt restructuring. ‘Those who chased high yield by purchasing Greek debt must share the costs,’ said Volker Wissing, chair of Bundestag’s finance committee. Leo Dautzenberg from the Christian Democrats said banks should prepare for a `haircut’ of up to 50pc. The ECB, Brussels, and the IMF have been fighting feverishly to head off such a move, fearing a financial chain-reaction.

If the Germans have any brains and pride, they will tell the Greeks to go jump in a lake (other phrases come to mind, but this is a family-oriented blog). And if this means that German banks take a loss on their holdings of Greek government debt, there’s a silver lining to that dark cloud since it is time for financial institutions to realize that they should not be lending so much money to corrupt and wasteful governments.