Few doubt the need for structural reforms in Europe. The region needs faster productivity growth and this requires, among other things, more flexible and competitive markets: labour and capital must be freer to move from slow growing sectors to faster-growing ones. But structural reforms alone will not achieve this. Indeed, in the short to medium term such reforms will further depress demand. Only in the long-term could they have the desired effect and only then if businesses invest in new organisational structures and new products, and if workers (especially young ones) have the right skills and experience. But business investment is at historic lows in Europe as firms worry about the lack of demand.
A further problem is the nature of the structural reforms underway in Europe. Supply-side reforms in the context of the eurozone largely mean labour market reforms, or more particularly, labour market reforms that erode the bargaining power of labour. By contrast, there is much less emphasis on opening up markets for goods and services to greater competition, which is arguably more important from the perspective of economic growth. This is perhaps unsurprising. Germany’s Hartz IV reforms, which are the inspiration for much of what the eurozone is doing, led to a weakening of workers’ bargaining power, but did little to promote reform of Germany’s domestic economy. Indeed, according to the OECD, Spain’s product markets are considerably more competitive than Germany’s. This helps explain the persistent weakness of German domestic demand: it fell in 2012, with all of the economy’s 0.9 per cent growth down to net exports.
The European Commission argues that the structural reforms underway in the peripheral eurozone economies are boosting their trade competitiveness, and points to the narrowing of their current account deficits in 2012 as evidence of this. But this improvement is mainly the result of unprecedentedly weak domestic demand (and hence declining imports) in these economies, rather than rising exports. Faced with stagnation at home, some firms have successfully scrambled to boost exports. However, a sustained rise in exports requires investment in new capacity and products and stronger export demand. Neither is happening: investment in manufacturing is at all-time lows across Europe, but it is especially weak in the periphery. Demand across the European economy, meanwhile, is chronically weak.
Three years ago, the Commission argued that rebalancing within the eurozone needed to be symmetric if it was to be consistent with economic growth. It followed that the onus needed to be on the economies with big trade surpluses to rebalance their trade as much as the deficit ones. In reality, very little emphasis has been placed on rebalancing the surplus economies. And in a report published in December 2012, the Commission downplayed the role that stronger demand in the region’s surplus economies would have on the exports of countries such as Spain, Greece and Portugal. The Commission illustrated this by showing the limited impact a 1 per cent increase in German domestic demand would have on the exports of the country’s eurozone trade partners: the peripheral ones do less trade with Germany than the country’s immediate neighbours, and would hence benefit less from stronger German demand for imports. The Commission acknowledges that there would be second and third round effects – for example, stronger demand in Germany would boost the French economy, which in turn would boost the Spainish one – but almost certainly underestimates the significance of these.
On their own, the structural reforms underway across Europe will bring neither economic recovery nor rebalancing. The current reforms focus strongly on labour markets, and risk leading to similar results across Europe to those seen in Germany: very weak consumption and investment. Europe needs to do much more to strengthen demand, which requires symmetric structural reforms and stimulus. While there is no doubt that Spain needs to reform its labour market, Germany would also benefit from reforms of its product markets. Those governments that have the scope to provide stimulus need to do so: Germany actually posted a budget surplus in 2012. Stronger demand in the countries running trade surpluses will not suffice to rebalance the eurozone economy and return it to growth, but it is an indispensable element of what is needed. The European Central Bank, meanwhile, could redouble its efforts to boost credit growth. As it stands, demand is likely to remain very weak across Europe for a prolonged period of time, further eroding growth potential and the sustainability of public finances.
The Commission’s readiness to place so much faith in structural reforms as a solution to Europe’s economic ills is a product of the region’s political realities. The surplus countries have successfully resisted pressure to take steps to rebalance their economies and there is little appetite among eurozone governments for simultaneous reflation involving fiscal stimulus and quantitative easing by the ECB. The current strategy is not without political risk: the more European policy-makers talk about growth, the less growth there is. Whereas unpopular national governments can be voted out and replaced with ones that do not shoulder responsibility for unsuccessful policies, this is not the case with the Commission, whose standing could suffer long-lasting damage.
Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.