The Fiscal Compact and Ireland

I was asked to address the Oireachtas Subcommittee on European Affairs on the issue of the Fiscal Compact, and did so this morning (18 May 2012). Below is the briefing note which I forwarded to the members. We were asked to be succinct and to talk for 5 minutes prior to questioning, hence the rather stripped down nature of the material.

I have previously expressed my concerns on the fiscal compact in a number of fora, including my blog and my fortnightly column in the Irish Examiner. We are in effect being asked to incorporate into our constitution an econometric concept in order to become more Germanic. It is as Davy Stockbrokers put it in February “an abstract theoretical economic concept that cannot be observed with certainty.” We are therefore asked to support the immeasurable in pursuit of the unattainable. The only rational argument to support the compact is one of utter expediency : as we will require access to ESM funds from 2013 onward, whether we call it a ludicrous word such as “bailout” or a mere technical extension of the present “bailout”, and as such funds are as of now contingent on the fiscal compact, we need to think long and hard before rejecting it.In the context of the committee today, I have a number of points.

  1. Ireland as a state is broke. This is not an ideological but an arithmetic matter. We are forecast to have a net exchequer balance of -€21b in 2012, which is in the largest part made up of current expenditure running at €51b while current revenue reaches only €38b. Thus any proposal that can hold out a prospect of reducing this towards zero, especially on the current side, is to be carefully examined. That is not to say that I welcome the Fiscal Compact unreservedly- I do not. It has many issues which I would like to see modified, changed, dropped or better phrased. As the focus here is on the effect of the treaty were it to be adopted let me concentrate on that.
  2. Trajectory of debt. The fiscal compact states a maximum permissible deficit of 0.5% of GDP. It is easy to work out that with modest growth of nominal GDP the deficit rule will result in a long-term debt to GDP ratio of extremely low levels. The stable steady state debt/gdp ratio converges to d/g, where d is the average nominal deficit as a % GDP and g is the average nominal GDP growth. Since 1980 the average deficit has been 4.1% with average GDP growth at 8.2%. The figures since 2000 are 2.8% and 4.8%. We will if we wish to achieve the 60% debt to GDP figures have to achieve a nominal growth rate of at least 2% while keeping deficits at 1% or less. We are forecast to have a structural deficit of 5.5% in 2012. To move to a 0.5% deficit therefore is a massive multibillion-euro demand shock. To move from the forecast 2015 115% debt/GDP ratio to the 60% permissible is to remove some 90b in debt from the stock of Irish government debt, or the equivalent of the entire national debt as of 2010. To do this will require that we run structural surpluses (or find somehow that austerity does in fact lead to growth in nominal GDP). Demand effects aside, one has to wonder if this is within the capacity of the state to achieve such a massive transformation?
  3. An area of the treaty that has received scant analysis, surprisingly so, is the effect which it will have on bond markets and Europe.As noted we can amend the ratio of government debt to national income by decreasing debt and/or by increasing wealth. The focus of the compact is on the former. Europe as a whole is significantly over the 60% limit. As of 2011 eurostat figures the majority of individual countries are also over. Thus the adoption of the compact suggests a prolonged massive de leveraging of the European sovereign bond market. The euro 17 countries as a whole need to reduce debt/GDP ratios from 85% to 60%. At present terms that is a reduction of some 2.3 trillion euro. That is a massive fiscal drag to pose on Europe and compact is that if it succeeds it will gravely damage the sovereign bond market. Even well run countries such as Netherlands ( 2012 debt/GDP forecast 65%, 2012 GDP growth 1%, Unemployment 4.5%) and Austria ( 2012 forecasts Debt/GDP 73%, , Unemployment 4%, GDP growth 1%) will be required to retrench. This is not a recipe for growth in Europe, and given that exports are forecast to be the entire contribution to any GDP growth we may see will see the stifling of demand in one of our major markets. This point has been reiterated in the Financial Times which stated on Tuesday 17th in its editorial “A fiscal compact worth its name would have matched belt-tightening in deficit countries with expansion in surplus countries. Universal austerity will instead erode the gains from fiscal discipline by stunting the economic output from which public and private debt can be serviced” It has also been critiqued by a wide variety of other market and academic economists (see this Reuters article for a synopsis of the argument) . Swabia housewives alone cannot reinvigorate Europe. Nouriel Roubin has statedWithout a much easier monetary policy and a less front-loaded mode of fiscal austerity, the euro will not weaken, external competitiveness will not be restored, and the recession will deepen. And, without resumption of growth – not years down the line, but in 2012 – the stock and flow imbalances will become even more unsustainable. More Eurozone countries will be forced to restructure their debts, and eventually some will decide to exit the monetary union.” Such policies are the direct opposite of what we now see, with strict money and frontloading of austerity. He further stated The trouble is that the Eurozone has an austerity strategy but no growth strategy. And, without that, all it has is a recession strategy that makes austerity and reform self-defeating, because, if output continues to contract, deficit and debt ratios will continue to rise to unsustainable levels. Moreover, the social and political backlash eventually will become overwhelming. A large (but not overwhelming) stock and flow of relatively low risk assets are required to support pension and investment funds. A shrunken market will be less able to fulfill that role. The fiscal compact therefore requires that over time trillions of euro of assets are removed from consideration of investors. The consequence of this will be an intensified move to safe haven assets such as the (to be radically shrunken) German bund market, driving down further German interest rates. Investors will have to accept radically lower long-term returns. Alternative investment classes seen as safe havens such as gold, or denominated in currencies such as the Norwegian kroner or Swiss franc will also attract investors, with knock-on consequences. The effect on Europe of a perpetual low cost of capital in the core and higher costs in the periphery cannot but exacerbate the existing core-periphery problems. In addition, low nominal rates lead ro negative real rates, a form of “financial repression” . Faced with a growing pension timebomb the shrinking of the pool of safe assets seems not sensible. Mercers 2011 Asset allocation survey indicates that most pension funds including Irish desired to increase not decrease their absolute and relative investment in domestic government bonds. There are plans to market up to 2b in domestic bonds to pension funds for annuity purposes. How these will be squared with decreases in the asset pool is unclear
  4. The fiscal treaty contains not just a set of macroeconomic thresholds but also under the Alert Mechanism Report looks at a series of more detailed ‘warning signs’. (See below). The first of these came out in mid February and as one might expect these show Ireland (as well as Greece and Spain) as being problematic. The warning indicators are shown below (courtesy of a CitiBank report). In the February report Ireland was shown to be in breach of 6 of these ( also shown below). What is interesting in the recent Citibank report (see http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2012/04/16/962221/return-of-the-stability-and-growth-pact/ ) is that while the Irish economy in the boom years would have shown relatively good adherence to the headline fiscal treaty requirements, there is some evidence that the indicators below would have triggered concern. Ireland began to exhibit significant numbers of breaches in 2004 onwards, mainly due to house prices, private sector debt, labor costs and real effective exchange rates. However, these were all a consequence of the credit boom. While a procedure now is available to fine countries that, having been found to be severely imbalance do not take steps to adjust towards balance, this fine is only up to 0.1% GDP . We are all now painfully aware of the political reaction that was evident (and voted for enthusiastically) when people were ‘cribbing and moaning’ as one Taoiseach so memorably put it. One can easily imagine the same Taoiseach cheerfully explaining how a fine of ‘eh, a few hunnered million’ was a small price to pay for the continuation of our unique way of achieving economic success. In other words, the flaw in the fiscal treaty is that it concentrates on trying to achieve political economy aims by exclusively economic means. Is there now and will there be in future the political will in Ireland to face down domestic calls for the ignoring of warnings?
  5. There are a host of other issues with the compact that bear on domestic competency. First, we will need to ensure that we have domestic capacity to estimate independent credible (from a technical sense) structural budget estimates, in an economic environment where there are no set rules on how this is to be done. To do otherwise will be to force us to rely entirely on the commission. This will be a net additional resource requirement for universities, the fiscal council, ESRI or a new body. Below we see (courtesy of Davys http://www.davy.ie/content/pubarticles/fiscalcompact20120227.pdf and Dr Constantin Gurdgiv http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2012/03/2532012-irish-gdp-and-structural.html) how IMF and EU commission estimates of the structural deficit can differ wildly, and in the context of a strict limit this mattera. Is there willingness and resource to spend on this? Second, and following on from this, is there sufficient technical knowledge in both economic and negotiation skills in the government to argue the case where as is inevitable there will be divergence between the commission and the domestic estimates? Third, there is no mechanism that I can see whereby on re-estimation of the models countries that were previously deemed in deficit are now deemed in surplus (or vice versa) are ‘reimbursed’ for the mis-estimation de jure, and again will there be sufficient skill sets for such an argument? The experience of Ireland with regard to the promissory note saga suggests to me that we have demonstrated neither the technical nor the negotiation skills that would be required under either of the last two questions. Fourth, the present fiscal compact is one leg of a stool, and as such while it can work it will be a precarious balancing act. The interaction of government with society in the economic space consists of fiscal and monetary policy. We do not have government control at a European level over monetary policy, and again one can see the way in which this leads to direct countervailing of purposes where increased austerity over and above the domestic requirement is imposed in pursuit of a flawed monetary vision. This treaty will provide a (Germanic ordoliberal) common spending policy. What is missing is a common tax policy and a common policy on transfers. Is there domestic will or competence to open up the latter two as a European aim, with the certain knowledge that for compromise on one (transfers) compromise on the other (tax) will be demanded?

Macroeconomic Imbalance Indicators

Estimates of Structural Deficit

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2 thoughts on “The Fiscal Compact and Ireland

  1. Dont know if you saw Larry Elliott’s piece today in the Guardian. Maybe it is because he panders to my left wing bias but he always seems to talk a lot of sense. Really he highlights the two key issues for me on the referendum

    i) Strategically what are we doing tying ourselves to an economic unit(the EU) which is doomed to long term low growth(at best) and which is suffering an acceleration of adverse movements in terms of trade.

    ii) Operationally or tactically as Elliott points out there is no answer from EU leaders to the double bind the markets are now applying to the EU – viz high debt – demands austerity – austerity means low growth – low growth means worsening debt to GDP ratios – means more market unhappiness – means more austerity. Waiting for the Germans to suffer enough to buy into higher EU inflation, or EU bonds – or both hardly represents a coherent response.

    On 17 April 2012 17:25, Brian M. Lucey wrote:

    New comment on Brian M. Lucey

    brianmlucey commented on Euro crisis will require some hard choices to be faced..

    in response to maurice coleman:

    Interesting piece. “At the same time we are being asked to vote on a fiscal compact which will not only in effect ban borrowing but given our debt levels will require us to run cyclical surpluses. That will, inevitably, lead to more austerity”. Is this a coded message to reject the referendum or have I [...]

    no, i havent yet decided myself what to do. I may or may not vote yes or no. The only cogent reason to adopt the treaty is the requirement for ESM money. Thats a huge issue. Pretty much every other issue would be a no. Whats the balance? Dunno.

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    Dont know if you saw Larry Elliott’s piece today in the Guardian. Maybe it is because he panders to my left wing bias but he always seems to talk a lot of sense. Really he highlights the two key issues for me on the referendum

    i) Strategically what are we doing tying ourselves to an economic unit(the EU) which is doomed to long term low growth(at best) and which is suffering an acceleration of adverse movements in terms of trade.

    ii) Operationally or tactically as Elliott points out there is no answer from EU leaders to the double bind the markets are now applying to the EU – viz high debt – demands austerity – austerity means low growth – low growth means worsening debt to GDP ratios – means more market unhappiness – means more austerity. Waiting for the Germans to suffer enough to buy into higher EU inflation, or EU bonds – or both hardly represents a coherent response

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