This is an expanded and linked verison of a column published in the Irish Examiner Saturday 12 may 2012. http://www.irishexaminer.com/business/a-reluctant-yes-voter-for-vital-access-to-funds-193627.html
I have decided, very reluctantly, to vote yes in the upcoming referendum on the fiscal compact. I have previous expressed many many doubts, most of which have remained unanswered. The compact is bad economics, it is inserting an ill-defined and inestimable concept in the constitution, it is highly likely to be a moot compact as soon as a large country deems it domestically expedient to be dropped, and it will result in us having to radically change our way of doing things. The latter may not be a bad thing given how poor at governance we have shown ourselves to be.
The debate has rapidly, and predictably, gone off the rails of the actual debate onto tracks that are only vaguely parallel. It has morphed into a debate on austerity, driven for the most part by the ideologues of the left tapping into an inchoate if understandable desire on all our parts to see an end to austerity. At some levels the debate has been farcical, with Richard Boyd-Barrett claiming that an unspecified 10b (presumably per annum) can be found from “wealth” while at the same time arguing against taxing housing….wealth. The 10b wealth tax meme has been roundly exploded by Seamus Coffey, but as is all too common in Ireland RBB has decided to engage in policy based evidence rather than evidence based policy. At least we are spared so far the more extravagant claims (YES For JOBS) on the yes side but expect the ludicrous level to rise there as the debate intensifies. Another feature of the no side is that it features the same old same old – SF have opposed every single EU referendum since our entry into the EU and one can assemble a DIY ULA Speech from a box of 1982 Socialist Workers Party posters.
The most often repeated argument is that signing to the treaty will institutionalize austerity as we drive towards a 60% debt gdp ratio. This is possible but not necessary. It all comes down to growth . Adopting the fiscal compact will require that in the end the debt to gdp ratio head to 60%. That is a massive fall from where we are now, and many of the commentators, including to some extent myself, see that trajectory as most probably involving a requirement to not simply run small or zero deficits but to actually have surpluses. Underlying the concern that this will institutionalize austerity is is pessimism about growth. The reality is that debt at the national level is rarely paid down. The debt/gdp ratio, the metric that will be used in the fiscal compact era, can fall as a result of debt being paid down (which doesn’t happen), gdp rising, or both. These figures are measured in nominal terms also, so the ratio can be eroded by inflation. An examination of the 1990s onward shows that debt/gdp ratios can fall very quickly.
From 95% in 1992 the ratio had fallen to 53% in 1998. Admittedly the 1990s was an era that in many ways was more benign in terms of the external environment and in terms of the degree of policy maneuver available to government, but the lesson stands: so long as debt does not grow the ratio should fall. It is abundantly clear from the debt-GDP analysis that first, this can can change for good or ill rapidly and second the deterioration since 2007 is appalling, driven by the collapse of the tax base (hence the need to rebalance and re broaden), the collapse of the economy (driven as it was in large part by a credit boom) and by the bales of wet straw that were placed on it by the gargantuan folly that was and is the bailing out of Anglo. The latter is important but it is not by any means the font et origo of our problems. While it may be tempting to call it bank debt treaty (as the superlative Namawinelake has when explaining that that is why he/she/they are agin it) the reality is that 2/3 of the increase in debt since bout 2007 to 2015 in down to our own deficit. It is without a shadow of a doubt true that the bank debt is usurious, that it should never have been loaded on the state, that we have shown ourselves to be singularly unable to gain meaningful change in its repayment and that it is an albatross around our necks. The issue is not that – it is whether or not voting yes or no is more likely to allow us a better negotiation position. As to whether we can effectively use that position is quite another thing.
So we are fine if we get growth but where will that come from? This is the key dilemma for Ireland and for the world. The latest IMF World Economic Outlook is at best cautious on prospects for growth. . We face a period of significant fiscal consolidation through 2015 to simply move to a state where the level of debt stands still. Indeed, at present the plans are still to run a deficit. Structural or otherwise a deficit where debt continues to grow is not conducive to reducing the debt/gdp ratio. The Fiscal council has suggested that additional to the government plans to have fiscal consolidation of 12.4b through 2015 an additional 2.8b might be required to achieve balance. This will weigh on any recovery and regardless of any fiscal corset or compact getting to a broadly balanced budget when the debt-gdp ratios are as high as they are is a good macroeconomic aim.
Nonetheless, as the fiscal compact is specified on nominal levels, so long as we keep debt rising by less than the nominal growth rate we will be reducing the ratio. Given that our average annual nominal growth rates over the longterm have been in and around 10%, achieving even modest nominal GDP growth should be feasible. So long as we do that we will, almost automatically, comply with the headline adjustment figures (see Seamus Coffey again and Karl Whelan on that issue)
A major problem with the plan “going forward” by the government is that it relies in essence on an export led recovery. The entire world seems to now be betting on export led recoveries, which makes sense only if we have found a Martian civilization willing and able to pay for our goods and services. Successive government projections for growth have been shown to be on the optimistic side, and it is clear as a bell that coordinated and prolonged austerity, lite or heavy, in the Eurozone is not going to lead to a recovery and all the evidence is that this is beginning to sink into the political consciousness. Thus at some stage we can reasonably expect some pro growth measures at a European level, whether written into a revised compact or as an addendum. The French and Greek election results guarantee that.
The main reason why I see myself, reluctantly, voting yes is to secure access to funding as and when we need it. The reality is that even if we were not to require a single additional euro of debt, by running a balanced budget, we face a massive refunding requirement. To reiterate, national debt doesn’t get paid off – it gets rolled over and over. Paying off the maturing debt with new debt does this. The trick, as we have noted above, is that with a modest amount of growth the burden on the state falls as a proportion, and with a modest amount of inflation the burden in present day funding terms falls further. The challenge then for Ireland is to achieve this. But we will still have to pay off the debt. We need to repay, to refinance, over €30b between 2014-2018 in national debt, and some 23b in funds issued under the bailout. There is guaranteed funding from the ESM for this. There is the argument that we can apply to the IMF which is true but application is by no means the same as acceptance. The IMF have previously expressed doubts (P 12 here) as to the appropriateness of them sharing the burden alone. The EFSF continuation would also seem to me to provide some cover only for the existing bailout, leaving the remainder of the rollover of national debt and any additional funding to be sought from the markets.
Voting no would thus expose the state to having to fund at least a part of its total requirement from the markets or from internal resources or from the markets at a still usurious price. As States can always fund themselves from internal sources, as a consequence the argument that “they will not let us collapse” do not hold as strongly as did the same argument for restructuring the banking debt. Ireland no longer holds the cards that it did when our banking system was a source of major potential contagion.
Banks reliance on the ECB has fallen and continues to fall, and we now are approaching a percentage of borrowing from the ECB more in line with our economic size. The ECB will support banks (although that support has to be coming to its limits) but they will not and cannot support states. Thus we face a “lesser of two evils” argument : this is pragmatic and economic reality no matter how much it may stick in the craw. Voting No would be the eviler of two lessers, and would rapdly expose how unimportant we now are.