The Failure of the Austerity Strategy Imposed on Greece, With Some Suggestions on What To Do (and What Not To Do) Now

Greece - GDP 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

A.  Introduction

It appears likely now that Greece will continue, at least for a few more months, with the austerity program that European governments (led by Germany) are insisting on.  In return, Greece will receive sufficient “new” funding that will allow it to pay the debt service coming due on its government debt (including debt service that was supposed to have been paid in June, but was not), as well as continued access to the liquidity lines with the European Central Bank that allow it to remain in the Eurozone.  But it is not clear how long Greece can continue on this path.

The measures being imposed by the Eurozone members are along the same lines as have been followed since the program began in 2010:  Primarily tax increases and cuts in government spending.  The most important measures (in terms of the predicted impact on euros spent or saved) in the new program are increases in value-added taxes and cuts in government pensions.  This has been a classic austerity strategy.  The theory is that in order to pay down debts coming due, a government needs to increase taxes and cut how much it has been spending.  In this way, the theory goes, the government will reduce its deficit and soon generate a surplus that will allow it first to reduce how much it needs to borrow and then start to reduce the debt it has outstanding.

The proponents of this austerity strategy, with Germany in the lead, argue that in this way and only in this way will the economy start to grow.  Others argue that austerity in conditions such as where Greece finds itself now will instead cut rather than enhance growth, and in fact lead to an economic decline.  The priority should instead be on actions that will lead to growth by raising rather than reducing demand.  Once the economy returns to full employment, one will be able to generate the public sector savings which will allow debt to be paid.  Without growth, the situation will only get worse.

One does not need to argue these points in the abstract.  Greece is now in its sixth year of the austerity program that Germany and others have insisted upon.  One can compare what has in fact happened to the economy to what was expected when the austerity program started.  The Greek program is the work of a combined group (nicknamed the “Troika”) made up of the EU, the ECB (European Central Bank), and the IMF.  The IMF support was via a Stand-By Arrangement, and for this the IMF prepares and makes available a Staff Report on the program and what it expects will follow for the economy. The EU and the ECB co-developed these forecasts with the IMF, or at least agreed with them.  This can therefore provide a baseline of what the Troika believed would follow from the austerity program in Greece.  And this can be compared to what actually happened.

The “projected” figures are therefore calculated from figures provided in the May 2010 IMF Staff Report for the Stand-By Arrangement for Greece.  What actually happened can be calculated from figures provided in the IMF WEO Database (most recently updated in April 2015).  I used the IMF WEO Database for the data on what happened as the IMF will define similarly in both IMF sources the various categories (such as what is included in “government” or in “public debt”).  Hence they can be directly compared.

This blog post will focus on a series of simple graphs that compare what was projected to what actually happened.  Note that the figures for 2014 should all be taken as preliminary. The concluding section of the post will review what might be done now (and what should not be done now).

As will be seen, the program failed terribly.  I should of course add that Germany and the Troika members do not believe that this failure was due to a failure in the design of the program, but rather was a result of the governments of Greece (several now) failing to apply the program with sufficient vigor.  But we will see that Greece actually went further than the original program anticipated in cutting government expenditures and in increasing taxes.  To be honest, I was myself surprised at how far they went, until I looked at the numbers.

Austerity was applied.  But it failed to lead to growth.

B.  The Path of Real GDP

To start with the most basic, did the austerity strategy lead to a resumption of growth or not?  The graph at the top of this post shows what was forecast to happen to real GDP in the Troika’s program, and what actually happened.  The base year is taken as 2008. Output had peaked early in that year before starting to turn down later in the year following the economic and financial collapse in the US.  (Note:  For 2008 as a whole, real GDP in Greece was only slightly below, by 0.4%, what it was in 2007 as a whole.)

The IMF Stand-by Arrangement for Greece was approved in mid-2010, with output falling sharply at the time.  The IMF then predicted that Greek GDP would fall further in 2011 (a decline of 2.6%), but that with adoption of the program, would then start to grow from 2012 onwards.

That did not happen.  The situation in 2010 was in fact already worse than what the IMF thought at the time, with a sharper contraction already underway in 2009 than the estimates then indicated and with this then continuing into 2010 despite the agreement with the Troika.  National estimates for aggregates like GDP are always estimates, and it is not unusual (including for the US) that later, more complete, estimates can differ significantly from what was initially estimated and announced.

Going forward, GDP growth was then far worse than what the IMF thought would follow with the new program.  GDP fell by 8.9% in 2011, rather than the 2.6% fall the IMF predicted.  GDP then fell by a further 6.6% in 2012 and a further 3.9% in 2013.  The widening gap between the forecast and the reality is especially clear if one shifts the base for comparison to 2010, the start of the IMF supported program:

Greece - GDP 2010-2014 Projection vs Actual

Growth appears to have returned in 2014, but by just 0.8% according to preliminary estimates (and subject to change).  But with the turmoil so far in 2015, everyone expects that GDP is once again falling.  The austerity strategy has certainly not delivered on growth.

C.  Real Government Expenditures, Taxes, the Primary Balance, and Public Debt

Advocates of the austerity strategy have argued not that the austerity strategy failed, but rather that Greece did not apply it with sufficient seriousness.  However, Greece has in fact cut government expenditures by substantially more than was called for in the IMF (and Troika) program:

Greece - Govt Expendite 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

By 2014, real government expenditures were 17% below what the IMF had projected would be spent in that year, were 27% below where they had been in 2010 at the start of the program, and were 32% below where they had been in 2008.  Real government expenditures were in each year far less, by substantial margins, than had been called for under the initial IMF program.

It is hard to see how one can argue that Greece failed to cut its government spending with sufficient seriousness when government spending fell by so much, and by so much more than was called for in the original program.

Taxes were also raised by substantially more than called for in the initial IMF program:

Greece - Govt Revenue 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

 

Tax effort and effect is best measured as a share of GDP.  The IMF program called for government revenues to rise as a share of GDP from 37% in 2009 and an anticipated 40.5% in 2010, to a peak of 43% in 2013 (a rise of 2 1/2% over 2010) after which they would fall.  What happened is that taxes were already substantially higher in 2009 (at almost 39% of GDP) than what the earlier statistics had indicated, and then rose from 41% of GDP in 2010 to a peak of 45% in 2013 (a rise of 4% over 2010).

Taxes as a share of GDP have therefore been substantially higher throughout the program than what had been anticipated, and the increase from 2010 to the peak in 2013 was far more than originally anticipated as well.  It is hard to see how one can argue that Greece has not made a major effort to secure the tax revenues that the austerity program called for.

With government spending being cut and government revenues rising, the fiscal deficit fell. For purposes of understanding the resulting government debt dynamics, economists focus on a fiscal deficit concept called the “primary balance” (or “primary deficit”, when in deficit).  The primary balance is defined as government revenues minus government expenditures on all items other than interest (and principal) on its debt.  It will therefore measure the resources available to cover interest (and principal, if all of interest can be covered).  If insufficient to cover interest coming due, then additional net borrowing will be necessary (thus adding to the stock of debt outstanding) to cover that interest.

With expenditures falling and revenues rising, the government’s primary balance improved sharply over the program period:

Greece - Primary Balance 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

The primary balance improved from a deficit of 10.2% of GDP in 2009 to 5.2% of GDP in 2010, and then rose steadily to a primary surplus of 1.2% of GDP in 2013 and an estimated 1.5% of GDP in 2014 (where the 2014 estimate should be taken as preliminary). A rise in the primary balance of close to 12% of GDP in just five years is huge.

However, the primary balance tracked below what the IMF program had called for.  How could this be if government spending was less and government revenues higher?  There were two main reasons:  First, the estimates the IMF had to work with in 2010 for the primary deficit in that year and in the preceding years were seriously wrong.  The primary deficit in 2010 turned out to be (based on later estimates) 2.8% points of GDP higher than had originally been expected for that year.  That gap then carried forward into the future years, although narrowing somewhat (until 2014) due to the over-performance on raising taxes and reducing government expenditures.

Second, while the path of government expenditures in real terms was well below that projected for the IMF program (see the chart above), the decline in government expenditures as a share of GDP was less because GDP was so much less than forecast. If, for example, government expenditures are cut by 20% but GDP also falls by 20%, then government expenditures as a share of GDP will not change.  They still did fall as a share of GDP between 2009 and 2014 (by 7.7% points of GDP), but not by as much as they would have had GDP not collapsed.

Finally, from the primary balance and the interest due one can work out the path of government debt to GDP:

Greece - Govt Debt to GDP 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

The chart shows the path projected for public debt to GDP in the IMF program (in blue) and the path it actually followed (in black).  Despite lower government expenditures than called for in the program and higher government revenues as a share of GDP, as well as a significant write-down of 50% on privately held government debt in 2012 (not anticipated in the original IMF program), the public debt to GDP ratio Greece now faces (177% as of the end of 2014, and rising) is well above what had been projected in the program (153% as of the end of 2014, and falling).

Why?  Again, the primary reason is that GDP contracted sharply and is now far below what the IMF had forecast.  If debt followed the path it actually did take but GDP had been as the IMF forecast, the debt to GDP ratio as of the end of 2014 would have been 131% and falling (the path shown in green on the chart).  This would have been well less than the 153% ratio the IMF forecast for 2014, due both to private debt write-off and to the fiscal over-performance.  Or if debt had followed the path projected in the IMF program while GDP took the path it in fact did take, the debt to GDP ratio would have been 207% in 2014 (the path in red on the chart) due to the lower GDP, or well above the actual ratio of 177% in that year.

One cannot argue that Greece failed to abide by its government expenditure and revenue commitments sought in the IMF program.  Indeed, it over-performed.  But the program failed, and failed dramatically, because it did not recognize that by implementing such austerity measures, GDP would collapse.  The program was fundamentally flawed in its design.

D.  Other Measures

While the fiscal accounts are central to understanding the Greek tragedy, it is of interest to examine two other variables as well.  First, the path taken by the external current account balance:

Greece - Current Acct 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

For countries who have their own currency, but who borrow in a foreign currency, crises will normally manifest themselves through a balance of payments crisis.  This is not central in Greece as it does not have its own currency (it is in the Eurozone) and almost all of its public borrowing has been in euros.  Still, it is of interest that the current account balance of Greece (exports of all goods and services less imports of all goods and services) moved from a massive deficit of over 14% of GDP in 2008 to a surplus in 2013 and 2014. Relative to 2010, Greek exports of goods and services (in volume terms) were 12% higher in 2014, while Greek imports were 19% lower.

The IMF had projected that the external current account would still be in deficit in those years.  This shift was achieved despite Greece not being able, as part of the Eurozone, to control its own exchange rate.  The rate relative to its Eurozone partners is of course fixed, and the rate relative to countries outside of the Eurozone is controlled not by events in Greece but by policy for the Eurozone as a whole.  Rather, Greek exports rose and imports fell because the economy was so depressed that domestic producers who could export did, while imports fell in line with lower GDP (real GDP was 17.5% lower in 2014 than in 2010).  Lower wages were central to this, and will be discussed further below.

Finally, with the economy so depressed, unemployment rose, to a peak of 27.5% in 2013:

Greece - Unemployment Rate 2008-2014 Projection vs Actual

While the preliminary estimate is that unemployment then fell in 2014, most observers expect that it will go up again in 2015 due to the economic turmoil this year.  And youth unemployment is at 50%.

E.  What Can Be Done

I do not know Greece well, and certainly not enough to suggest anything that would be close to a complete program.  But perhaps a few points may be of interest, starting first with some things not to do (or at least are not a priority to do), and then some things that should be done (even if unlikely to happen):

1)  What not to do, or at least not worry about now:

a)  Do not continue doing what has failed so far:  While it should be obvious, if a particular strategy has failed, one should stop pursuing it.  Keeping the basic austerity strategy, with just a few tweeks, will not solve the problem.

b)  Do not make the austerity program even more severe:  Most clearly, the austerity program has savaged the economy, and one should not make things worse by tightening it even further.  Yet that is the direction that things appear to be heading in.

Negotiations are now underway as I write this between the Government of Greece and the Troika on the extension of the austerity program.  A focus is the government’s primary balance.  The original IMF program called for a primary surplus of 3% of GDP in 2015, and that has been still the official program goal despite all the turmoil between 2010 and now. The IMF program (as updated in June 2014) then envisioned the primary surplus rising to 4.5% of GDP in 2016 and and again in 2017.  Germany wanted at least this much, if not more.

Even the official Greek proposal to the Troika of July 10 had the primary surplus rising over time, from 1% of GDP in 2015, to 2%, 3%, and 3 1/2% in 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively.  With the chaos this year, few expect Greece to be able to achieve a primary surplus target of even 1% of GDP (if one does not ignore payment arrears).  And while the IMF estimate from this past spring was that the primary surplus in 2014 reached 1.5% of GDP (reflected in the chart above), this was a preliminary estimate, and many observers believe that updated estimates will show it was in fact lower.

With even the Greek Government proposal conceding that an effort would be made to reach higher and higher primary balance surpluses, the final program as negotiated will almost certainly reflect some such increase.  This would be a mistake.  It will push the economy down further, or at least reduce it to below where it would otherwise be had the primary surplus target been kept flat.

c)  Do not negotiate over the stock of debt now:  There has been much more discussion over the last month on a need to negotiate now, and not later (some assert), a sharp cut to the stock of Greece’s public debt outstanding.  This was sparked in part by the public release on July 14 by the IMF of an updated debt sustainability analysis, which stated bluntly that the level of Greek public debt was unsustainable, that it could never be repaid in full, and that therefore a reduction in that debt will at some point be inevitable through some system of write-offs.

There is no doubt that Greek public debt is at an unsustainable level.  Some portion will need to be written down.  But I see no need to focus on that issue now, with the economy still deeply depressed and in crisis.  Rather, a moratorium on debt service payments (both principal and interest) should be declared.  The notional debt outstanding would then grow over time at the rate of interest (interest due in effect being capitalized).  At some future point, when the economy has recovered and with unemployment at more normal levels, there can be a negotiation on what to do about the debt then outstanding.  One will know only at that point what the economy can afford to pay.

Note that such a moratorium on debt service is fully and exactly equivalent to debt service payments being paid, but out of “new” loans that cover the debt service due.  This has been the approach used so far, and the current negotiations appear to be calling for a continuation of this approach.  Such “new” lending conveys the impression that debt service continues to be paid, when in reality it is being capitalized through the new loans. Little is achieved by this, and it wastes scarce and valuable time, as well as political capital, to negotiate over such issues now.

d)  Structural reforms can wait:  There is also no doubt that the Greek economy faces major structural issues, that hinder performance and productivity.  There are undoubtedly too many rules and regulations, inefficient state enterprises in key sectors, and codes that limit competition.  They do need to be reformed.

But there is a question of whether this should be a focus now.  The economy is severely depressed, with record high unemployment (similar to the peak rates seen in the US during the Great Depression).  Measures to improve productivity and efficiency will be important to allow the full capacity level of Greek GDP eventually to grow, but the economy is currently operating at far below full capacity.  The priority right now should be to return employment to close to full employment levels.

One needs also to recognize that many of the measures that would improve efficiency will also have the immediate impact of reducing rather than raising employment.  Changing rules and regulations that will make it easier to fire workers will have the immediate impact of reducing employment, not raising it.  Certain state enterprises undoubtedly should be privatized, and such actions can improve efficiency.  But the immediate impact will almost certainly be cuts in staffing, not increases.

Structural reforms will be important.  But they are not the critical priority now.  And far more knowledgeable commentators than myself have made the same point.  Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke made a similar point in a recent post on his blog, although more diplomatically and speaking on Europe as a whole.

2)  What should be done:

Finally, a few things to do, although it is likely they will not be politically feasible.

a)  Allow the primary balance to fall to zero, and then keep it there until the economy recovers:  As discussed above, the program being negotiated appears to be heading towards a goal of raising the primary surplus to 3 1/2% of GDP or more over the next few years.  The primary balance appears to have been in surplus in 2014 (the preliminary IMF estimate was 1.5% of GDP, but this may well be revised downwards), with a surplus also expected in 2015 (although the likelihood of this is now not clear, due to the chaotic conditions).  To raise it further from current levels, the program will call for further tax increases and government expenditure cuts.  This will, however, drive the economy down even further.

Keeping the primary balance at zero rather than something higher will at least reduce the fiscal drag that would otherwise hold back the economy.  Note also that a primary balance of zero is equivalent to a moratorium on debt service payments on public debt, which was discussed above.  Interest would then be fully capitalized, while no net amount will be paid on principal.

b)  Germany needs to take actions to allow Greece (and the Eurozone) to recover:  While I am under no illusion that Germany will change its domestic economic policies in order to assist Greece, the most important assistance Germany could provide to Greece is exactly that.

The fundamental problem in the design of the single currency system for the Eurozone system was the failure to recognize as critically important that Europe does not have a strong central government authority, with direct taxing powers, that can take action when the economy falls into a recession.  When a housing bubble bursts in Florida or Arizona, incomes in those states will be supported by US federal authorities, who will keep paying unemployment compensation; pensioners will keep receiving their Social Security and Medicare; federal transfers for education, highway programs, and other such government expenditures will continue; and if there is a national economic downturn (and assuming Congress is not controlled by ideologues opposed to any such actions) then stimulus measures can be enacted such as increased infrastructure spending.  And the Federal Reserve Board can lower interest rates to spur investment.  All of this supports demand, and keeps demand (and hence production and employment) from falling as much as it otherwise would.  This can then lead to a recovery.

The European Union in current form is not set up that way.  Central authority is weak, with no direct taxing powers and only limited expenditures.  Members of the Eurozone do not individually control their own currency.  If a member country suffers an economic downturn and faces limits on either what it can borrow in the market or in how much it is allowed to borrow in the market (by the limits set in the Fiscal Compact that Germany pushed through), it will not be able to take the measures needed to stabilize demand. Government revenues will decline in the downturn.  Any such borrowing limits will then force government expenditures to be cut.  This will lead to a further downward spiral, with tax revenues falling again and expenditures then having to be cut again if borrowing is not allowed to rise.  Greece has been caught in exactly such a spiral.

As was discussed some time ago on this blog, even Professor Martin Feldstein (a conservative economist who had been Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Reagan) said such fiscal rules for the Eurozone could “produce very high unemployment rates and no route to recovery – in short, a depression”.  That is exactly what has happened in Greece.

The EU in its present form cannot, by itself as a central entity, do much to resolve this. However, member countries such as Germany are in a position to help support demand in the Eurozone, if they so wished.  But they don’t.  Germany had a current account surplus of 7.5% of GDP in 2014, and the IMF expects it will rise to 8.4% of GDP in 2015. Germany’s current account surplus hit $288 billion in 2014, the highest in the world (China was second, at $210 billion).  German unemployment is currently about 5%, but inflation is excessively low at 0.8% in 2014 and an expected 0.2% in 2015.  It could easily slip into the deflationary trap that Japan fell into in the 1990s that has continued to today.

To assist Greece and others in the Eurozone, Germany could do two things.  First, it could accede to the wage demands of its principal trade unions.  Germany’s largest trade union, IG Metall, had earlier this year asked for a general wage increase of 5.5% for 2015.  In the end, it agreed to a 3.4% increase.  A higher wage increase for German workers would speed the day to when they were in better alignment with those in Greece (which have been dropping, as we will discuss below) and others in the Eurozone.  Inflation in Germany would likely then rise from the 0.2% the IMF forecasts for 2015, but this would be a good thing.  As noted above, inflation of 0.2% is far too low, and risks dipping into deflation (prices falling), from which it can be difficult to emerge.  Thus the target set in the Eurozone is 2%, and it would be good for all if German inflation would rise to at least that.

Direct fiscal spending by Germany would also help.  It has the fiscal space.  This would spur demand in Germany, which would be beneficial for countries such as Greece and others in the Eurozone for whom Germany is their largest or one of their largest export markets.  Inflation would likely rise from its current low levels, but as noted, that would be good for all.

Of even greater direct help to Greece would be German support for EU programs that would provide direct demand support in Greece.  An example might be an acceleration of planned infrastructure investment programs in Greece, bringing them forward from future years to now.  Workers are unemployed now.  Bringing such programs forward would also be rational even if the intention was simply to minimize costs.  Unemployed workers and other resources are now available at cheap rates.  They will be more expensive if they wait until the economy is close to full employment, so that workers have an alternative. Economically, the opportunity cost of hiring workers now is extremely low.

A more balanced approach, where adjustment is not forced solely on depressed countries such as Greece but in a more balanced away between countries in surplus and those in deficit, would speed the recovery.  Far more authoritative figures than myself (such as Ben Bernanke in his blog post on Greece) have made similar arguments.  But Germany shows little sign of accepting the need for greater balance.

3)  What will likely happen:

With Germany not changing its stance, and with the Troika now negotiating an extension and indeed deepening of the austerity program Greece has been forced to follow since 2010 (in order to be allowed to remain in the Eurozone), the most likely scenario is that conditions will continue along the lines of what they have been so far under this program. The economy will remain depressed, unemployment will remain high, government revenues will fall in euro terms, and this will then lead to calls for even further government expenditure cuts.

One should not rule out that at some point some event occurs which leads to a more immediate collapse.  The banking system could collapse, for example.  Indeed, many observers have been surprised that the banking system has held up as well as it has. Liquidity support from the European Central Bank has been critical, but there are limits on how much it can or will be willing to provide.  Or a terrorist bomb at some resort could undermine the key tourism industry, for example.

Absent such uncontrollable shock events, there is also the possibility that at some point the Government of Greece might decide to exit the Eurozone.  This would also create a shock (and any such move to exit the Eurozone could not be pre-announced publicly, as it would create an immediate run on the currency), but at least some argue that following the initial chaos, this would then make it possible for Greece to recover.

The way this would work is that the new currency would be devalued relative to the euro, and by law all domestic transactions and contracts (including contracts setting wages of workers) would be re-denominated into the new currency (perhaps named the “new drachma” or something similar).  With a devaluation relative to the euro, this would then lead to wages (in euro terms) that have been reduced sharply and immediately relative to what they were before.  The lower wages would then lead to Greek products and services that are more competitive in markets such as Germany, leading to greater exports (and lower imports).  This is indeed how countries with their own currencies normally adjust.

It would, however, be achieved only by sharply lower wages.  It would also likely be accompanied by chaotic conditions in the banking system and in the economy generally in reaction to the shock of Eurozone exit.  Greece would also likely cease making payments of interest and principal on its government debt (payments that are due in euros).  This plus the exit from the Eurozone would likely sour relations with Germany and others in the Eurozone, at a time when the country needs help.

So far Greece has resisted leaving the Eurozone.  Given what it has accepted to do in the Troika program in order to stay in the Eurozone (with the resulting severely depressed economy), there can be no doubt that this intention is sincere.  Assuming then that Greece does stay in the Eurozone, what will likely happen?

Assuming no shocks (such as a collapse of the banking system), it would then be likely that the economy would muddle along for an extended period.  It would eventually recover, but only slowly.  The process would be that the high unemployment will lead to lower and lower wages over time, and these lower wages would then lead to Greek products becoming more competitive in markets such as Germany.  This is similar to the process following from a devaluation (as discussed above), but instead of this happening all at one point in time, it would develop only gradually.

The process has indeed been underway.  The key is what has happened to wages in Greece relative to where wages have gone in its trading partners.  One needs also to adjust for changes in labor productivity.  The resulting measure, which economists call nominal unit labor costs, measures the change in nominal wages (in euro terms here), per unit of effective labor (where effective labor is hours of labor adjusted for productivity growth).  While one cannot easily compare unit labor costs directly between countries at the macro level (it would vary based on employment composition, which differs by country), one can work out how much it has changed in one country versus how much it has changed in another country, and thus how much it has changed for one country relative to another.

Scaling the base to 100 for the year 2010 (the year the austerity program started in Greece), relative unit labor costs have fallen sharply in Greece relative to the rest of the Eurozone, and even more so relative to Germany (with the data computed from figures provided by Eurostat):

Greece and Eurozone Unit Labor Cost, 2010 = 100

Relative to 2010, nominal unit labor costs fell by 13% in Greece (up to 2013, the most recent date available).  Over that same period, they rose by 4% in the Eurozone as a whole and by 6% in Germany.  Thus relative to Germany, unit labor costs in Greece were 18% lower in 2013 than where they were in 2010.  This trend certainly continued in 2014.

The lower unit labor costs in Greece have led to increased competitiveness for the goods and services Greece provides.  Using the IMF WEO database figures, the volume of Greek exports of goods and services grew by a total of 12% between 2010 and 2015, while the volume of imports fell by 19%.  As noted in a chart above, the Greek current account deficit went from a large deficit in 2010 to a surplus in 2013 and again in 2014.  Greater exports and lower imports have helped Greek jobs.  And as seen in another chart above, Greek unemployment fell a bit in 2014 (although with the recent chaos, is probably rising again now).

This process should eventually lead to a recovery.  But it can be a slow and certainly painful process, and is only achieved by keeping unemployment high and wages falling.

Are Greek wages now low enough?  Changes in unit labor costs cannot really provide an answer to that.  As noted above, the figures can only be provided in terms of changes relative to some base period.  The base period chosen may largely be arbitrary.  The chart above was drawn relative to a base period of 2010, as that was the first year of the austerity program, but cannot tell us how much (and indeed even whether) wages were out of line with some desirable relative value in 2010.  And one can see in the chart above that Greek unit labor costs were rising more rapidly than unit labor costs in the Eurozone as a whole in the period prior to 2010, and especially relative to Germany.

Rebasing the figures to equal 100 in the year 2000 yields:

Greece and Eurozone Unit Labor Cost, 2000 = 100

The data is the same as before, and simply has been adjusted to reflect a different base year.  Relative to where they were in the year 2000, Greek unit labor costs in 2013 were below what they were for the Eurozone, but only starting in 2013:  They were higher for each year from 2002 to 2012.  And they were still above the change in Germany over the period:  German unit labor costs were 11% higher in 2013 than where they were in 2000, while Greek unit labor costs were 17% higher (but heading downwards fast).

Wages are therefore adjusting in Greece, and indeed adjusting quite fast.  This is leading to greater exports and lower imports.  Over time, this will lead to an economic recovery. But it will be a long and painful process, and it is difficult to predict at this point how long this process will need to continue until a full recovery is achieved.

Unless the depressed conditions in the country lead to something more radical being attempted, this is probably the most likely scenario to expect.

The recovery could be accelerated if Greece were allowed to keep the primary balance flat at say a zero balance (implying all interest on its public debt would be capitalized, and no net principal paid) rather than increased.  But this will depend on the acquiescence of the Troika, and in particular the agreement of Germany.  It is difficult to see this happening.

The UK Parliamentary Election Results: A Big Victory for the Conservative Party, While Voters Shifted to the Left

UK Per Capita GDP 2008Q1 to 2015Q1 vs Great Depression

A.  Introduction

The recent Parliamentary election in the United Kingdom was without doubt a big victory for the Conservative Party and a loss for Labour.  The normally staid The Economist (which I try to read on a regular basis) sub-titled its Bagehot column this past week as “British voters have showed a crushing disdain for the Labour Party”, and in its first sentence termed the election a “calamitous defeat” for Labour.  Stronger language is available in other British publications, for those who are interested.

But while undoubtedly a defeat for Labour and a victory for the Conservatives (who gained a majority of the seats in Parliament, and hence will no longer need to rule in a coalition), one should not jump to what would seem to be the natural conclusion that voters shifted to the Right while abandoning the Left.  That did not happen.  Given the rules of the British electoral system, where Parliamentary seats are won by whomever gained most votes (not necessarily a majority) in each of the 650 constituencies (a “first past the post” system), plus the rise of significant third parties on both the Left and the Right, swings in voter support between Left and Right were quite different from swings in the number of seats won by the major parties.

This blog post will look at these election results, in comparison to the results from the most recent UK general election in May 2010.  That election brought a Conservative – Liberal Democrats coalition to power, replacing the previous Labour Government.  Some have argued (most strongly by the Conservative Party leaders themselves) that the recent election results mark a vindication of the economic program it launched soon after taking office, and a recognition of its success.  The first section below will examine very briefly whether that program can be termed a success, and the rest of the post will then look at the election results themselves.

B.  Growth Has Been Poor

Perhaps the best single measure of whether a government’s program succeeded or not is whether it led to good and sustained growth or not.  While there is of course much more to be concerned with, real incomes and living standards cannot increase overall unless there is growth.

The chart at the top of this post shows what happened in the recent downturn to real per capita GDP in the UK, measured relative to the peak level it had achieved before the downturn (in the first quarter of 2008).  It also shows the path followed by the economy during the Great Depression in the UK, from the peak reached in the first quarter of 1930. The recent data come from the UK Office of National Statistics, while the data on real GDP in the 1930s come from the data set (drawn from academic studies) released by the Bank of England and called “Three Centuries of Data” (a hot link is not possible, but just do a Google search to find it).

The rapid and steep decline in GDP at the start of the Great Depression, and then a delayed and initially slow recovery, had marked the worst previous period for the economy over at least the last century.  But the current recovery has been worse.

The downturn during the 2008 collapse initially traced very closely the path of the downturn during the first year of the Great Depression.  But the Labour Government in power until mid-2010 was able to turn this around after about a year with stabilization and stimulative measures, with the economy then starting to grow.  A Conservative led coalition (with the Liberal Democrats) then took power after the May 2010 general elections, and soon announced a sharp austerity program.  After one more quarter of growth (the new austerity measures began to be implemented in the fall of 2010), the economic recovery was brought to a halt.  Real per capita output was largely unchanged over the next two and a half years.

Policy then shifted, with an easing of the austerity measures.  Growth resumed in early 2013, to a modest rate averaging 1.9% a year (per capita) over the two years leading up to the recent election.  While better than no growth at all, as during the first two and a half years of the Conservative-led Government, such a modest growth rate for an economy coming out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression is poor.

Indeed, as the chart at the top of this post shows, the recovery was a good deal faster during the Great Depression.  At the same point in the downturn (after 28 quarters, or 7 years), real GDP per capita in the Great Depression was 7 1/2 % higher than it had been at its previous peak at the start of 1930.  In the current downturn, it is still 1% lower than it was at the start of 2008.

This is a terrible record.  While there is strong evidence in the political science literature that voters only pay attention to growth in just the year or so before a general election (rather than looking farther back to the full record of the administration), one cannot find evidence here that the austerity program of the Conservatives has been a great success. At most it says that voters can perhaps be fooled by timing the economic cycle to cut growth when first taking office to make it easy to have a “recovery” as the next election approaches.  But it is not clear that UK voters have in fact been fooled in this way, once one looks at whether voters indeed shifted to the Right or to the Left.

C.  Overall Election Results by Party

First the election results by party.  The figures are all taken from the BBC, and the comparisons are made relative to the results in the 2010 general election.  In terms of the number of seats gained or lost:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Number of Seats by Party

Labour lost 26 seats, and the Conservatives won 24, bringing the Conservative total to 331, or a majority in the 650 seat House of Commons in Parliament.  This was a major victory for the Conservatives and a loss for Labour.

The Liberal Democrats also lost, but by much more.  They had won 57 seats in the previous election but only 8 now, for a loss of 49.  They had joined as the junior partner in the Conservative-led coalition of the previous Parliament, and provided the key votes that allowed approval of the conservative agenda of austerity (as well as tax cuts, mostly benefiting the rich).  Voters who had supported the Liberal Democrats before clearly did not like what their party representatives had done, and the party was decimated.

But the biggest winner by far in terms of number of seats was the Scottish National Party (SNP), which gained 50 seats.  This was more than double what the Conservatives gained. The SNP advocates policies well to the left of Labour in terms of support for social programs (in addition to its support for a Scottish nation).  This hints at the need to start to break down the results to see what really happened.

The first step is to look at the swing by party in the share of votes cast.  Because of the UK “first past the post” system, plus the existence of significant smaller parties, swings in votes cast can differ significantly from swings in seats won.  The changes in the shares of the vote gained were:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Share of Vote by Party

Here the Labour Party actually gained, increasing their share of the UK vote by 1.5% points.  They gained in terms of their share of the vote, but still lost 26 seats.  The Conservatives also increased their share of the vote. but only by 0.8% points, about half of what Labour gained, even though this led to their gaining 24 seats in the new parliament. One cannot conclude from this that there was a big swing in sentiment away from Labour and towards the Conservatives.  Labour increased its share of the vote, and by more than the Conservatives did.  But with the UK first past the post system, what matters in terms of seats won is how these votes are spread across constituencies and what gains and losses are being made by third parties.

Among the remaining parties, the Liberal Democrats saw their share of the vote collapse by over 15% points, to a total in 2015 of less than 8% of the voters.  They were decimated, and their losses in seats are consistent with this.

The SNP, as noted above, won big in terms of seats gained, but at a national level their share of the vote rose by just 3% points.  But the SNP contested only seats in the 59 districts in Scotland (and took 56 of them), and there their share of the vote rose by 30% points.  The 50 seats the SNP gained came mostly from Labour (which lost 40 seats in the Scottish districts) and the Liberal Democrats (which lost 10 seats).  The Conservatives had one seat before in Scotland and one seat after, for no net loss, but they basically had nothing to lose there to start with.

The Green Party, with a focus on environmental and social issues, is also on the left. While they gained no new seats in parliament, they increased their share of the UK vote by close to 3% points.

On the right is UKIP (UK Independence Party), a radically right-wing populist party advocating exit from the EU and conservative social programs.  They increased their share of the vote (relative to the 2010 elections) by 9.5% points and gained one seat relative to their 2010 results (when they won zero seats; in by-elections since 2010, UKIP won two seats, so their one seat now is a reduction relative to what they had immediately before the 2015 elections were called).

The BNP (British National Party) is an even more extreme right wing, anti-immigrant and anti-EU, party.  It had close to 2% of the vote in 2010, but dropped to essentially zero now, with most of its supporters likely shifting to UKIP.  It held no seats before or after.

Finally, the other category is comprised of a fairly large number of mostly small parties. The more important among them are regional parties in Wales and Northern Ireland, whose primary focus is on regional issues.  They had no net gain or loss of seats, but they hold a not insignificant 21 seats in the Parliament.

 D.  Left, Center, or Right

Given this distribution across parties, how would the vote and seat count add up if one grouped the parties by ideology?  The Left is made up of Labour, the SNP, and the Greens; the Center is the Liberal Democrats; the Right is the Conservatives, TKIP, and BNP; and Other is everyone else.

The results in terms of share of the vote is:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Share of Vote by Left, Center, Right

The Left gained 7.4% points of the vote, while the Right gained 8.4%.  And the Center (the Liberal Democrats) lost over 15% points.  This is hardly a resounding trouncing of the Left, or a renunciation of their views.

There is then more of a consistent result in the number of seats won or lost:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Number of Seats by Left, Center, Right

The Left won 24 seats, the Right won 25, and the Center lost 49.  It is hard to argue the Left lost in this election.  It is more correct to say that the Center lost, with almost even shares then going to the Left and to the Right.

E.  Just Left or Right

Finally, it is arguable that the Liberal Democrats can no longer be considered a centrist party.  They have been coalition with the Conservatives in the most recent Parliament, and provided the critical votes they needed to implement their austerity program of cuts in government programs (while at the same time granting tax cuts mostly benefiting the rich). While I would not want to argue the point too strongly, for completeness it is of interest to look at how the results add up if one combines the Liberal Democrats with the right-leaning parties.

In terms of voting shares, there is now a clear shift from the Right to the Left:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Share of Vote by Left, Right

The Left gained 7.4% points of the vote, while the Right lost 6.7% points (while the Other category lost 0.7%).  This would then be a pretty sharp swing to the Left.

And in terms of seats won:

UK Parliament 2015 Election Results, Change in Number of Seats by Left, Right

The Left gained 24 and the Right lost 24.  Under a different voting system than that used in the UK, this would have been a major victory for the Left.

F.  Conclusion

There can be no dispute that the Conservative Party won big in this election, while Labour lost.  The Conservatives gained an absolute majority in the new Parliament, and no longer need to rule in coalition.

But this win was a result of the particular electoral rules used in the UK.  The rules are what they are, and those who win by those rules are those who form the new government, but one should not then jump to the conclusion that this win by the Conservatives reflects an endorsement by the voters of their economic program.  There was, rather, a big move to the Left among the electorate as a whole, to parties that strongly criticized the austerity policies of the Conservative-led government.

More fundamentally, the UK recovery from the 2008 downturn has been far too slow, with growth that is not only well below where the economy was at the same seven-year mark during the Great Depression (8% lower in real per capita terms), but also even still below where the economy was in 2008.  No one can dispute that this is a terrible record.

The Impact of Austerity Policies on Unemployment: The Contrast Between the Eurozone and the US

Unemployment Rates - Eurozone and US, Jan 2006 to Oct 2014

A recent post on this blog looked at the disappointing growth in the Eurozone since early 2011, when Europe shifted to austerity policies from its previous focus on recovery from the 2008 economic and financial collapse.  There has indeed been no growth at all in the Eurozone in the three and a half years since that policy shift, with GDP at first falling by about 1 1/2% (leading to a double-dip recession) and then recovering by only that same amount thus far.  The recovery has been exceedingly slow, and prospects remain poor.

The consequences of the shift to austerity can be seen even more clearly in the unemployment figures.  See the chart above (the data comes from Eurostat).  Unemployment in Europe rose sharply starting in early 2008 and into early 2009.  But it then started to level off in late 2009 and early 2010 following the stimulus programs and aggressive central bank programs launched in late 2008.  Unemployment in the US followed a similar path during this period, and for similar reasons.

But the paths then diverged.  After peaking in early 2010 at about 10% and then starting to come down, the unemployment rate in the Eurozone switched directions and started to rise again in mid-2011.  It reached 12.0% in early 2013 and has since come down slowly and only modestly to a still high 11.5% currently.  In the US, in contrast, the unemployment rate reached a peak of 10.0% in October 2009, and has since fallen more or less steadily (with bumps along the way) to the current 5.8% (as of October 2014).  It has been a slow recovery, but at least it has been a recovery.

This divergence began in 2010, as Europe shifted from its previous expansionary stance to austerity.  Influential Europeans, in particular German officials and Jean-Claude Trichet (then the head of the European Central Bank) argued that not only was austerity needed, but that austerity would be expansionary rather than contractionary.  We now see that that was certainly not the case:  GDP fell and unemployment rose.

The most clear mark of that shift in policy can be found in the actions of the European Central Bank.  ECB interest rates had been kept at a low 0.25% for its Deposit Facility rate (one of its main policy rates) for two years until April 2011.  The ECB then raised the rate to 0.50% on April 13, and to 0.75% on July 13, 2011.  But European growth was already faltering (for a variety of reasons), and it was soon recognized by most that the hike in ECB interest rates had been a major mistake.  Trichet left office at the end on his term on November 1, replaced by Mario Draghi.  On November 9 the ECB Board approved a reversal.  The Deposit Facility rate was cut to 0.50% that day, to 0.25% a month later on December 11, and to 0.00% on July 11, 2012.

Fiscal policy had also been modestly expansionary up to 2010, as monetary policy had been up to that point, but then went into reverse.  Unfortunately, and unlike the quick recognition that raising central bank interest rates had been a mistake, fiscal expenditures have continued to be cut since mid-2010.

Germany in particular called for cuts in fiscal spending for the members of the Eurozone, and forced through a significantly stricter set of rules for fiscal deficits and public debt to GDP ratios for Eurozone members.  Discussions began in 2010, amendments to the existing “Stability and Growth Pact” were approved on March 11, 2011, and a formal new treaty among Eurozone members was signed on March 2, 2012.  The new treaty (commonly referred to as the Fiscal Compact) mandated a balanced budget in structural terms (defined as not exceeding 0.5% of GDP when the economy was close to full employment, with a separate requirement of the deficit never exceeding 3% of GDP no matter how depressed the economy might be).  Financial penalties would be imposed on countries not meeting the requirements.

The result was cuts to fiscal expenditures:

Govt Expenditures, Real Terms - Eurozone and US, 2006Q1 to 2014 Q2 or Q3

Government fiscal expenditures in the Eurozone had been growing in real terms in line with real GDP up to 2008, at around 2 to 3% a year.  With the onset of the crisis, fiscal expenditures at first grew to counter the fall GDP.  But instead of then allowing fiscal expenditures to continue to grow even at historical rates, much less the higher rates that would have been warranted to offset the fall in private demand during the crisis, fiscal expenditures peaked in mid-2010 and were then cut back.  By 2014 they were on the order of 14 to 15% below where they would have been had they been allowed to keep to their historical path.  This has suppressed demand and therefore output.

The path of US real government expenditures is also shown on the graph.  Note that government expenditures here include all levels of government (federal, state, and local), and include all government expenditures including transfers (such as for Social Security).  Government expenditures for the Eurozone are defined similarly.  The US data comes from the BEA, while the Eurozone data comes from Eurostat.

Government expenditures in the US also peaked in 2010, as they had in the Eurozone, and then fell.  This has been discussed in previous posts on this blog.  But while US government expenditures fell after 2010, they had grown by relatively more in the period leading up to 2010 than they had in the Eurozone, and then fell by relatively less.  They have now in 2014 started to pick up, mostly as a consequence of the budget deal reached last year between Congress and President Obama.  State and local government expenditures, which had been severely cut back before, have also now stabilized and started to grow as tax revenues have begun to recover from the downturn.  And in part as a result, recent GDP growth in the US has been good, with real GDP growing by 4.6% in the second quarter of 2014 and by 3.9% in the third quarter.

The fiscal path followed in the US could have been better.  An earlier post on this blog calculated that GDP would have returned to its full employment level by 2013 if government spending had been allowed to grow merely at its historical rate.  And the US could have returned to full employment by late 2011 or early 2012 if government spending had been allowed to grow at the more rapid rate that it had under Reagan.

But with the fiscal cuts, unemployment has come down only slowly in the US.  The recovery has been the slowest of any in the US for at least 40 years, and fiscal drag by itself can account for it.  But at least unemployment has come down in the US, in contrast to the path seen in Europe.

An Update on the Impact of the Austerity Programs in Europe and a Higher Tax on Consumption in Japan: Still No Growth

 

GDP Growth in Eurozone, Japan, and US, 2008Q1 to 2014Q3

A.  Introduction

With the release last Friday by Eurostat of the initial GDP growth estimates for most of Europe for the third quarter of 2014, and the release on Monday of the initial estimate for Japan, it is a good time to provide an update on how successful austerity strategies have been.

B.  Europe

As was discussed in earlier posts in this blog on Europe (here and here), Europe moved from expansionary fiscal policies in its initial response to the 2008 downturn, to austerity programs with fiscal cutbacks starting in 2010/11.  The initial expansionary policies did succeed in stopping the sharp downturn in output that followed the financial collapse of 2008/2009.  European economies began to grow again in mid-2009, and by late 2010 had recovered approximately two-thirds of the output that had been lost in the downturn.

But then a number of European leaders, and in particular the leaders of Germany (Chancellor Angela Merkel and others) plus the then-leader of the European Central Bank (Jean-Claude Trichet), called for fiscal cuts.  They expressed alarm over the fiscal deficits that had developed in the downturn, and argued that financial instability would result if they were not quickly addressed.  And they asserted that austerity policies would not be contractionary under those circumstances but rather expansionary.  Trichet, for example, said in a June 2010 interview with La Repubblica (the largest circulation newspaper in Italy):

Trichet:  … As regards the economy, the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.

La Republicca:  Incorrect?

Trichet:  Yes. In fact, in these circumstances, everything that helps to increase the confidence of households, firms and investors in the sustainability of public finances is good for the consolidation of growth and job creation.  I firmly believe that in the current circumstances confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.

So what has actually happened since the austerity programs were imposed in Europe?  The chart at the top of this post shows the path of real GDP for the larger Eurozone economies as well as for the Eurozone as a whole, plus Japan and the US for comparison.  The data for Europe (as well as the US) comes from Eurostat, with figures for 2014Q3 from the November 14 Eurostat press release, while the data for Japan came most conveniently from the OECD.  Real GDP is shown relative to where it was in the first quarter of 2008, which was the peak for most of Europe before the 2008/09 collapse.

In a word, the results in Europe have been terrible.  Real GDP in the Eurozone as a whole is basically the same as (in fact slightly less than) what it was in early 2011, three and a half years ago.  To be more precise, real GDP in the Eurozone fell by a bit more than 1% between early 2011 and early 2013, and since then rose by a bit over 1%, but it has basically been dead.  There has been no growth in the three and a half years since austerity programs took over.  And Eurozone output is still more than 2% below where it had been in early 2008, six and a half years ago.

Since early 2011, in contrast, the US economy grew by 8.6% in real terms.  Annualized, this comes to 2.4% a year.  While not great (fiscal drag has been a problem in the US as well), and not sufficient for a recovery from a downturn, the US result was at least far better than the zero growth in the Eurozone.

There was, not surprisingly, a good deal of variation across the European economies.  The chart shows the growth results for several of the larger economies in the Eurozone.  Germany has done best, but its growth flattened out as well since early 2011.  As was discussed in an earlier post, Germany (despite its rhetoric) in fact followed fairly expansionary fiscal policies in 2009, with further increases in 2010 and 2011 (when others, including the US, started to cut back).  And as the chart above shows, the recovery in Germany was fairly solid in 2009 and 2010, with this continuing into 2011.  But it then slowed.  Growth since early 2011 has averaged only 0.9% a year.

Other countries have done worse.  There has been very little growth in France since early 2011, and declines in the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy.  Spain was forced (as a condition of European aid) to implement a very tight austerity program following the collapse of its banking system in 2008/09 as a consequence of its own housing bubble, but has loosened this in the last year.  Only in France is real GDP higher now than where it was in early 2008, and only by 1.4% total over those six and a half years.  But France has also seen almost no growth (just 0.4% a year) since early 2011.

C.  Japan

The new figures for Japan were also bad, and many would say horrible.  After falling at a 7.3% annualized rate in the second quarter of this year, real GDP is estimated to have fallen by a further 1.6% rate in the third quarter.  The primary cause for these falls was the decision to go ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax rate on April 1 (the start of the second quarter) from the previous 5% to a new 8% rate, an increase of 60%.

The Japanese consumption tax is often referred to in the US as a sales tax, but it is actually more like a value added tax (such as is common in Europe).  It is a tax on sales of goods and services to final consumers such as households, with offsets being provided for such taxes paid at earlier stages in production (which makes it more like a value-added tax).  As a tax on consumption, it is the worst possible tax Japan could have chosen to increase at this time, when the economy remains weak.  There is insufficient demand, and this is a straight tax on consumption demand.  It is also regressive, as poor and middle class households will pay a higher share of their incomes on such a tax, than will a richer household.  With its still weak economy, Japan should not now be increasing any such taxes, and increasing the tax on consumption is the worst one they could have chosen.

With recessions conventionally defined as declines in real GDP in two consecutive quarters, Japan is now suffering its fourth recessionary contraction (a “quadruple-dip” recession) since 2008.  This may be unprecedented.  Japan’s output is still a bit better, relative to early 2008, than it is for the Eurozone as a whole, but it has been much more volatile.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected in December 2012 and almost immediately announced a bold program to end deflation and get the economy growing again.  It was quickly dubbed “Abenomics”, and was built on three pillars (or “arrows” as Abe described it).  The first was a much more aggressive monetary policy by the Central Bank, with use of “quantitative easing” (such as the US had followed) where central bank funds are used to purchase long term bonds, and hence increase liquidity in the market.  The second arrow was further short-term fiscal stimulus.  And the third arrow was structural reforms.

In practice, however, the impacts have been mixed.  Expansionary monetary policy has been perhaps most seriously implemented, and it has succeeded in devaluing the exchange rate from what had been extremely appreciated levels.  This helped exporters, and the stock market also boomed for a period.  The Nikkei stock market average is now almost double where it was in early November 2012 (when it was already clear to most that Abe would win in a landslide, which he then did).  But the impact of such monetary policy on output can only be limited when interest rates are already close to zero, as they have been in Japan for some time.

The second “arrow” of fiscal stimulus centered on a package of measures announced and then approved by the Japanese Diet in January 2013.  But when looked at more closely, it was more limited than the headline figures suggest.  In gross terms, the headline expenditure figure amounted to a bit less than 2% of one year’s GDP, but the spending would be spread over more than one year.  It also included expenditures which were already planned.  It therefore needs to be looked at in the context of overall fiscal measures, including the then planned and ultimately implemented decision to raise the consumption tax rate on April 1, 2014.  The IMF, in its October 2013 World Economic Outlook, estimated that the net impact of all the fiscal measures (including not only the announced stimulus programs, but also the tax hike and all other fiscal measures) would be a neutral fiscal stance in 2013 (neither tightening nor loosening) and a tightening in the fiscal stance of 2.5% of GDP in 2014.  The fall in GDP this year should therefore not be a surprise.

Finally, very little has been done on Abe’s third “arrow” of structural reforms.

On balance, Abe’s program supported reasonably good growth of 2.4% for real GDP in 2013 (see the chart above).  There was then a spike up in the first quarter of 2014.  However, this was largely due to consumers pulling forward into the first quarter significant purchases (such as of cars) from the second quarter, due to the planned April 1 consumption tax hike.  Some fall in the second quarter was then not seen as a surprise, but the fall turned out to be a good deal sharper than anticipated.  And the further fall in the third quarter was a shock.

As a result of these developments, Abe has announced that he will dissolve the Diet, hold new elections in mid-December with the aim of renewing his mandate (he is expected to win easily, due to disorder in the opposition), and will postpone the planned next increase in the consumption tax (from its current 8% to a 10% rate) from the scheduled October 2015 date to April 2017.  Whether the economy will be strong enough to take this further increase in a tax on consumption by that date remains to be seen.  The government has no announced plans to reverse the increase of 5% to 8% last April.

Japan’s public debt is high, at 243% of GDP in gross terms as of the end of 2013.  Net debt is a good deal lower at 134% (debt figures from IMF WEO, October 2014), but still high.  The comparable net debt figure for the US was 80% at the end of 2013 (using the IMF definitions for comparability; note this covers all levels of government, not just federal).  Japan will eventually need to raise taxes.  But when it does, with an economy just then emerging from a recession due to inadequate demand, one should not raise a tax on consumption.  A hike in income tax rates, particularly on those of higher income, would be far less of a drag on the economy.

Already Low Public Investment Has Fallen Sharply Under Obama

Public Investment Share of GDP, 1952-2013

 

A.  Public Investment as a Share of GDP

Public investment has fallen sharply under Obama, from already low levels.  This may come as a surprise to many, given the repeated assertions of conservatives that government has grown radically during his presidential term.  Obama has indeed repeatedly called for the need to revive public investment, particularly at a time when unemployment has been high, and government borrowing rates have been essentially zero in real terms.  But Republican control in Congress has blocked this.

Net public investment after depreciation (and excluding public investment by the military) has as a result fallen in half during Obama’s tenure in office, from an already low 1.2% of GDP in 2009, to just 0.6% of GDP in 2013.  And contrary to a common belief, net public investment in 2009 was not exceptionally high.  To be precise, it came to 1.20% of GDP in 2009, and an almost identical 1.19% of GDP in 2007 and again in 2008.  The 2009 stimulus program, with its focus on tax cuts, did not really do that much for public investment.  It rose, but only by barely more than depreciation rose that year on old investments.

The fall since 2009 would have been even greater had one included investment by the military, which has also been scaled back.  But the focus in this post will be on investment in our economy.

The figures are shown in the chart above.  The data are calculated from the numbers in the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA accounts, often also referred to as the GDP accounts) from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  The public investment figures shown here cover all forms of public investment by government other than by the military, and at all levels (federal, state, and local).  Using figures for 2013, 60% of the gross public investment was for public infrastructure, 27% was for research and development (as well as investment in software), and 13% was for equipment (such as computers).

Many observers focus solely on the gross investment figures, as these can be most easily measured.  The GDP shares for gross public investment are shown as the green line in the chart above.   But what matters for economic growth is the net addition to productive capacity from this investment, after one subtracts depreciation.  Investments wear out over time.  The BEA NIPA accounts include estimates of what this depreciation will be (worked out at the detailed individual product levels), and those estimates are shown as the blue line in the chart.  The difference between gross investment and depreciation is net investment, shown in red on the chart.

The net investment of 0.6% of GDP in 2013 is the lowest level of net (non-military) public investment as a share of GDP in 66 years, or two-thirds of a century.  In data going back to 1929 (the earliest year with official GDP estimates), it was only lower during World War II and the immediate post-war years (1942 to 1947), when non-military spending of all kinds was drastically scaled back.

Net public investment rose sharply as a share of GDP in the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s.  Its share of GDP doubled, from 1.5% in 1952 and again in 1953, to 3.0% at its peak in 1966.  This was the period when we invested in the then new Interstate Highway system, in new and expanded water and sewerage systems, and in government research and development (such as the Apollo moon mission).  The economy then grew strongly, with supportive infrastructure.  But public investment then started to be cut back sharply, reaching a trough in 1983 of just 0.9% of GDP, after which it fluctuated around a low level of generally 1.1 to 1.4% of GDP.  It then was cut back sharply again, by half, during the period Obama has been president.  Aside from 1942 to 1947, it is now at a historic low.

B.  Public Investment in Real Per Capita Dollar Terms

Another way to look at such figures is in real per capita terms.  Using prices of 2013, net non-defense public investment came to $291 per person in 1952.  It was only slightly more, at $313 per person, in 2013, an increase of just 8% in 61 years:

Real per Capita Dollar Terms Change Change
     2013 prices 1952 1968 2013 1952-2013 1968-2013
Non-Defense Net Public Investment $291 $783 $313 8% -60%
Per Capita Real GDP $16,675 $24,240 $52,985 218% 119%

Over this same period, real per capita GDP more than tripled, from $16,675 in 1952 to $52,985 in 2013.  It is ridiculous to say the US cannot now afford to invest more in infrastructure and other public assets.  We could afford to invest a similar amount to what we are investing now, when incomes were only one-third as high as now.

Per capita net pubic investment reached a peak in dollar terms in 1968, at $783 (in terms of 2013 prices).  (The peak as a share of GDP was in 1966, but GDP was growing strongly in those years, so the peak in dollar terms could come two years later.)  From that peak, per capita net public investment fell to the $313 of 2013, a fall of 60%.  But over that same period, real per capita GDP more than doubled.  We could certainly have afforded to have kept up, and indeed expanded, our investment in public infrastructure.  But the political choice was made not to.  The result has been our deteriorating public assets.

C.  Conclusion

The poor and inadequate condition of American infrastructure and other public assets should not be a surprise when one looks at how little we spend on such capital.  Net spending of just $313 per person in 2013 is tiny.  Doubling or tripling this would not be a big burden.

One can live on old capital, such as the roads and bridges we built in the 1950s and 60s, for a period of time, but eventually they do wear out.  Net public investment of just 0.6% of GDP will not suffice to support an economy that should be growing at 3 to 4% a year.  But what we have instead is an embarrassment at best (as anyone who has traveled abroad to Europe or East Asia knows), and one which will increasingly act as a drag on the economy.