Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Needed: a Franco-German concordat

Like many other EU summits over the past two years, the European Council meeting in Brussels on June 28th and 29th has been billed as a ‘last chance’ to save the euro. With the situation in Greece, Spain and Italy causing alarm, EU leaders should present a credible plan to convince financial markets that they are serious about saving the euro. They are unlikely to do so. Although there will probably be other last chances, time is starting to run out. Unless France and Germany can soon agree on a grand bargain, disaster may loom.

Not only France but also Italy, Spain, the European Commission, the IMF and the Obama administration are urging Germany to accept ‘eurobonds’ (collective eurozone borrowing), bigger bail-out funds that can intervene in sovereign bond markets and a ‘banking union’ that would include common deposit insurance and bank recapitalisation schemes. For now, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel is not budging.

According to one EU official who has worked closely with Merkel, she reacts badly when other governments ‘gang up’ against her: recent public criticism from François Hollande, the French president, and Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, has only made her more stubborn. But the official points out that since the euro crisis began she has carried out several U-turns (for example, by agreeing to set up bail-out funds). She has also told fellow EU leaders in private that the euro is in Germany’s national interest and that if, in a crisis, new measures are required, she will take them. What she will not do is spell out in public the steps she is prepared to take, lest that encourage other governments to relax their efforts to curb budget deficits and enact reforms.

When Merkel says that she will do whatever it takes to save the euro she is presumably sincere. But in a crisis would she be able to move quickly enough? She faces severe domestic political constraints. Many Bundestag members oppose greater generosity to southern Europe. In that they reflect German public opinion, which is becoming more hostile to bail-outs. Furthermore, Germany’s constitutional court could block further transfers of power to the European Union. Most of the eurobond schemes that have been mooted would be incompatible with Germany’s current constitution. The German constitution can be changed if two thirds of Bundestag members vote for an amendment. However, if Merkel required the votes of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) to change the constitution, her coalition government would probably collapse.

Not unreasonably, most Germans are reluctant to support schemes such as eurobonds unless other eurozone countries are willing to submit their economic policies to more control by EU institutions. Otherwise the southern Europeans could borrow cheaply via eurobonds and then spend freely. Monti and Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, are willing to accept more EU control. But Hollande has not yet indicated that he is willing to do so. Many senior figures in French politics, including the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, oppose transferring more powers to the European Commission.

Hollande’s current policies are making it hard for Germany to change its stance on the euro. He appears allergic to the kinds of structural economic reform that would boost France’s waning competitiveness, such as deregulating labour markets (he is lowering the pension age while other European governments are raising it). He says he is committed to a budget deficit of 3 per cent next year – which would mean a restrictive fiscal policy – but has so far announced no spending cuts and several spending increases. State spending is 56 per cent of GDP (the highest in the EU after Denmark) and growing. A swathe of new taxes on business is likely to discourage investment and thus stunt economic growth. For the time being, Hollande appears no more willing than Nicolas Sarkozy was to give the EU a bigger say over French budgetary policy.

The story of the euro, like that of the EU itself, is one of Franco-German bargaining. The current disconnect between Paris and Berlin is destabilising the euro. In the long run the euro is not sustainable without a grand bargain between France and Germany. Germany will need to accept the principle of eurobonds, some sort of banking union, softer budgetary targets for the countries in difficulty, and the writing off of more of those countries’ debts. In return France and the other euro countries will have to swallow both structural reforms that would enhance productivity, and greater EU sway over budgets and other economic policies.

At the moment such a grand bargain is impossible, and not only because Paris and Berlin are far apart on policy. Merkel and Hollande do not trust each other. The history of Franco-German relations suggests that even when two leaders initially get on badly (think of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, or Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel) they eventually find a way of working together.

However, the financial markets may not wait. The next eurozone crisis could be imminent, perhaps provoked by a bank run in Spain or Italy, or those countries having to pay so much to borrow that they are effectively frozen out of the bond markets. Those who wish the euro well must hope that in an emergency, Merkel and Holland will overcome their differences, act decisively and bring along the other leaders with them.

But the intrusion of democracy could spoil the best efforts to salvage the euro. In the Netherlands, parties that oppose austerity at home as well as more money for bail-outs could win September’s general election. Monti’s government of technocrats, increasingly unpopular in Italy, could fall long before the elections that are due next spring. Within the past few days both Wolfgang Schaüble, the German finance minister, and Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD leader, have said that big changes such as eurobonds could well require a referendum in Germany.

Many things can go wrong, but if France and Germany work together the euro has a sporting chance of survival. The EU institutions can play a role in bringing them together. Ever since the euro crisis began, the Commission, in particular, has been marginalised from some of the decision-making on the most important issues. The gravity of the current situation presents an opportunity for the institutions to reclaim some intellectual leadership. The ‘four presidents' report’, published on June 25th, shows that they are trying to do so.

Written by the presidents of the Commission, European Central Bank, Eurogroup and European Council – with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, in the lead – the report sketches a way forward on banking, fiscal and economic union. It calls for common systems for banking supervision, deposit insurance and bank resolution. It also suggests more EU control over national budgets and levels of debt, alongside tentative steps towards debt mutualisation (it mentions short-term ‘eurobills’ and a ‘debt redemption fund’, kinds of eurobond that may be compatible with the German constitution).

The four presidents’ report offers EU leaders a sensible roadmap for their future work. However, Merkel’s response, expressed to law-makers in Berlin on June 26th, was to say that she did not expect to see eurobonds in her lifetime. She is, in the words of the EU official quoted at the start of this piece, “practising brinkmanship, which of course entails the risk that one falls into the abyss”.

Parts of this article are based on a piece that appeared on the Guardian website on June 25th 2012.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Germany's own goal: Why Berlin's sense of invulnerability will be its undoing

Countries around the world fear that Europe's handling of the eurozone crisis will cause a global slump. But in Germany, the currency union's biggest economy, there is a curious sense of invulnerability. For many Germans, including many senior policy-makers, the crisis seems to be someone else's problem. Indeed, some even believe that Germany would be better off without the euro. Merkel's obduracy is widely credited with striking a blow for Germany's national interests. The German government and media portray demands that Germany accept debt mutualisation or a banking sector union as a call for German charity or benevolence. Such reforms are rarely, if ever, seen as being in Germany's self-interest, but rather an imposition on the country. This is puzzling, because Germany is much more vulnerable than German policy-makers appear to believe. And Germany’s strategy for dealing with the crisis is maximising, not minimising, the risks to the country’s economic and political interests.

What explains this sense of invulnerability? Is the German economy really so strong that it can sail through an EU slump and a renewed global crisis? The German economy has certainly bounced back stronger than most of the rest of the Europe. Over the four years to the first quarter of 2012, the economy grew by 1 per cent. This hardly qualifies as the Wirtschaftswunder it is sometimes portrayed as in Germany (and is a worse performance than the US), but is considerably better than the EU or eurozone average. Germany's labour market has also performed strongly. Unemployment has fallen steadily, contrasting sharply with surging joblessness in France, Italy and Spain. German youth unemployment is at a 20 year low. This partly reflects demographics – the number of Germans coming of working age each year has fallen steeply due to the country’s persistently low birth-rate. But demand for labour has also held up well.

However, Germany's export dependence remains as pronounced as ever. The country's current account surplus has fallen but not significantly so: after peaking at 7.4 per cent of GDP in 2007 it was still equal to 5.7 per cent in 2011. Over the four years to the first quarter of 2012, domestic demand rose by 2 per cent, and hence outpaced growth in overall GDP. However, this was largely down to a steep fall in exports in 2009. Since then the contribution of net exports (exports minus imports) to economic growth has been positive: growth in domestic demand has lagged that of the economy as a whole. Moreover, stripping out government consumption – which has risen relatively strongly – domestic demand increased by just 1 per cent over the last four years. And growth in government consumption has now slowed sharply.

But what of the argument that Germany is no longer so dependent on the eurozone because of growing trade with the rest of the world? The eurozone accounted for 39 per cent of German exports in 2011, down from 43 per cent in 2007; the EU's share fell from 63 per cent to 59 per cent over this period. Put another way, exports to the EU are still equivalent to over 25 per cent of German GDP. And Germany exported 10 times as much to the EU in 2011 as it did to China. What of the country's trade surplus with the rest of EU? The surpluses with the EU have fallen from the highs reached in 2007. In 2007, trade with the rest of the eurozone accounted for 60 per cent of Germany's overall trade surplus and the EU for over 80 per cent. By 2011 these proportions had fallen to 40 per cent and 55 per cent respectively.

Germany has not rebalanced decisively towards domestic demand and remains highly dependent on trade with the rest of Europe. What of Germany's foreign investments? Almost two-thirds of Germany's total foreign assets (equivalent to around 200 per cent of GDP) are denominated in euro. Two-thirds of the country's stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) is in eurozone countries. The value of these assets is already being depressed by the crisis and would fall dramatically if the currency union collapses. And then there is the Bundesbank's exposure to other eurozone central banks. As capital flight from the struggling member-states has got underway, banks in these economies have become dependent on funds from their central banks, which have turned to the Bundesbank for financing. At the end of 2006 the difference between the Bundesbank's claims on other eurozone central banks and the latter's claims on the German central bank was negligible, but by May 2012 stood at €700bn. This will not pose problems so long as the euro system holds together, but it is far from clear what would happen if it falls apart.

Record low government borrowing costs have fuelled Germany's sense of invulnerability. Investors have pulled out of struggling eurozone economies in favour of German bunds, pushing yields down to unprecedentedly low levels. But there are signs that this is now changing as Germany's burgeoning exposure to the rest of the eurozone raises fears for the country's own fiscal stability. A declining group of countries are being called upon to underwrite ever larger sums of money, eroding their own creditworthiness. For example, a full bail-out of Spain would further erode confidence in Italy which would have to underwrite 23 per cent of the funds or around €100bn (on the assumption that a Spanish bail-out totalled around €400bn). This, in turn, would increase the likelihood of Italy itself needing a bail-out. At this point, only Germany, France, the Benelux, Austria and Finland would be in a position to underwrite bail-out funds. As a result, France's share of a bail-out of Italy would be around 35 per cent of the total, and would inevitably prompt a steep rise in French borrowing costs. Indeed, there is real risk that France would not be able to underwrite its share, leaving German (and a group of small economies) back-stopping the whole edifice. With each new country forced to seek a bail-out from the EU's rescue funds, the more vulnerable Germany becomes.

The current strategy for dealing with the eurozone crisis is largely a German one. But far from limiting the risks to Germany, it is maximising them. The German economy is not immune to the economic slump enveloping a growing swath of Europe. One country after another will need bailing out, with Germany ultimately providing the back-stop. Much of this debt will not be repaid, leading to a dramatic rise in Germany's public indebtedness. Without a mutualisation of risk, the euro will collapse, with devastating implications for German exports (to EU and non-EU markets alike as a euro collapse would hit the global economy hard), the value of Germany's foreign investments, and the stability of its banking sector. These are just some of the direct economic costs; the political fall-out would be grave for Germany. Isolated and blamed for the collapse, it would be poorly placed to pursue its interests through whatever is left of the EU.

By contrast, the reforms needed to stabilise the eurozone pose far fewer risks to Germany. Debt mutualisation need not be open-ended, so moral hazard could be limited. And it is far from clear that mutualising debt would boost Germany's borrowing costs compared to the current approach, which threatens to undermine the country's creditworthiness without doing anything to address the underlying reasons for the eurozone crisis. The arguments for a banking union are equally compelling. If the eurozone banking crisis is left to fester, banks will collapse, which in turn will hit German banks (and hence German taxpayers) very hard. In return for agreeing to mutualise debt and to introduce a eurozone back-stop to the economy's banking sector, Germany could demand a host of concessions. The political union needed to give legitimacy to these institutional reforms would be cast in Germany's image. Berlin would cement its influence over Europe's economy and its politics but in a benign and hence sustainable fashion.

Five years ago Germany was plagued by self-doubt and even self-flagellation. Now the political debate, media coverage and national mood generally are marked by hubris and self-righteousness. Germany's strength is exaggerated and its weaknesses downplayed. The German authorities are underestimating how much they have to lose from the eurozone crisis and the damage it is inflicting on the European economy as a whole. Germany should agree to big institutional reforms of the currency union, not out of charity, but as a way of containing the risks to itself. A deepening crisis, culminating in defaults, a rupturing of the eurozone and most probably the single market are all but inevitable under the current strategy. This will not only do huge economic damage to Germany but leave the country isolated and mistrusted by a region from which it derives its strength. With the German economy slowing rapidly and investors starting to question the safety of German debt, it is possible the country will change course. But at present it appears that Germany is not for turning.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The EU must fight corruption and defend the rule of law

The fight against corruption and national maladministration is currently very much on the minds of policy-makers in Brussels. This is because the eurozone crisis and concerns over the rule of law in newer EU members, including Bulgaria and Romania, make clear an embarrassing truth about European integration. The EU is a joint law-making body, single currency area and common travel zone where countries have often very different attitudes towards public accountability, quality of administration and the prevention of graft.

Corruption and the weakness of national institutions is a scourge right across central, eastern and southern Europe, according to a recent report by Transparency International (TI). The report measured the ‘national integrity’ of 25 EU countries, finding that “Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have serious deficits in public sector accountability and deep-rooted problems of inefficiency, malpractice and corruption, which are neither sufficiently controlled nor sanctioned.” In addition, TI reports that positive progress towards reform in newer member-states has slowed, and in some cases reversed, since accession, particularly in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. But Bulgaria and Romania remain the most corrupt.

Hitherto, officials accepted divergences in governing standards in the EU as an unalterable fact of life, and certainly too difficult to address in the ultra-politically correct world of ministerial meetings and diplomatic working groups. But now the mismatch between national administrations in ethics and efficiency is one of the most salient political problems obstructing efforts to stabilise the euro, calm tensions within the Schengen area of passport-free travel and restore the popularity of EU enlargement in older member-states.

Poor public administration in Greece – in terms of its budgetary reporting and refugee protection – is partly responsible for that country’s tenuous position within both the euro and the Schengen areas. In Bulgaria and Romania, corruption and low judicial standards remain a serious source of concern five years after accession to the Union, damaging both countries’ chances of joining Schengen as well as the credibility of the EU enlargement process. And in Hungary, the government of Viktor Orban seems determined to limit the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, a nod towards authoritarianism hardly becoming an EU member-state. (See the 2012 report on media freedom and the rule of law in Hungary, by Freedom House, an NGO.)
What – if anything – can be done to address such issues at European level? The EU has the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, under which candidates for membership must have functioning market economies, observe the rule of law and respect human rights. However, the European Commission’s leverage to police these conditions mostly evaporates after the candidate joins the EU and gains equality of status with other members. If a country later crosses the threshold from merely corrupt and inefficient to despotic government, the EU’s treaties allow for other member-states to suspend its voting rights. But this is seen as a ‘nuclear’ option by European governments, designed as a deterrent rather than a tool, given the implications involved for national sovereignty.

The Commission thinks that it can at least improve efforts to fight graft with a new ‘EU anti-corruption report’ to be published every two years from 2013. (Its officials estimate that corruption costs member-states collectively around €120 billion a year.) Rather than rank countries in order of their relative virtue, as Transparency International does (see its annual ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’), the Commission will focus instead on issues such as public procurement where widespread corruption negatively impacts the single market. The reports will not name and shame specific countries. Nor are any sanctions envisaged for those national administrations which fail to address persistent problems. Such initiatives are worthy but lack teeth.

What the EU really needs is an ex post means to ensure that member countries would still pass the Copenhagen criteria if they were to re-apply for membership. In July, the Commission will report on how much progress Bulgaria and Romania have made in efforts to counter corruption, reform their judiciaries and tackle organised crime. This is the so-called ‘co-operation and verification mechanism’ (CVM) that the two countries undertook to follow in return for EU membership. Politicians in Bucharest and Sofia now chafe at being singled out for special treatment amongst their EU counterparts and would dearly love to see the CVM discontinued after its five-year anniversary next month. This is despite the fact that both countries have failed to deliver fully on solemn promises of reform that they made in 2007.

Instead, EU leaders should agree in principle that any member found to be in persistent breach of the Union’s commitment to the rule of law and good governance could be subject to a CVM, rather than a suspension of voting rights. If a majority of EU countries agree, the definition of such a breach could include instances where corruption or maladministration has threatened the stability of the euro or Schengen areas. And, unlike the current situation with Bulgaria and Romania, the Commission should be able to impose sanctions – such as the suspension of EU funds – when countries refuse to discuss problems or make progress towards meeting certain benchmarks. Officials should include this idea in proposals for a new ‘political union’ currently being drawn up to stabilise the eurozone.

Governments – whatever their fears for the euro or free movement – are likely to take a dim view of further Commission interference in an area where national sensitivities could hardly run higher. Furthermore, a country's level of tolerance for corruption and poor administrative practices is deeply engrained in its culture, history and legal traditions. Real progress is dependent on a cultural shift in what is popularly deemed as acceptable behaviour in businesses, courts or the government in the country in question. Such change takes time and bureaucratic sanctions imposed by the EU can play only a complementary role.

Nevertheless, it is equally unlikely that voters will accept closer political union without stronger EU tools to monitor the performance of public administrations and address concerns over corruption and low judicial standards in existing and future members.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

Friday, June 01, 2012

Some sorts of austerity are better than others

Governments in the eurozone's periphery are pursuing a scorched earth fiscal strategy. Distressed governments may not be able to afford a fiscal stimulus or even a delayed consolidation, partly because of the size of their deficits and partly because they do not fully control the currency in which that debt is issued. In the absence of transfers from the eurozone's creditor nations, governments in the periphery are cutting every area of spending indiscriminately. Pro-growth investments in infrastructure and education are being slashed alongside consumption, like welfare payments. This is no way to build 'competitiveness', as Germany insists they must.

Public investment has a high 'multiplier' – economics jargon for extra growth generated by government spending. Most economists calculate that the infrastructure spending multiplier is greater than one, which means that for every €1 spent, more than €1 of economic activity will accrue. Some studies put the figure as high as two. The education spending multiplier is harder to calculate, but according to the OECD, people who complete university earn 11 per cent more a year on average than those who only have secondary education. Those who finish high school earn 9 per cent more than those who drop out. This suggests that government education spending provides a sizeable 'bang for a buck' over time. The initial investment will be more than repaid through higher tax receipts and lower welfare spending. 

In Spain, the state's investment in infrastructure averaged 3.8 per cent of GDP in the decade before the financial crisis. Over the last three years it has slashed this share to 2.8 per cent – and the 2012 budget foresees this falling to just 1.8 per cent. Advocates of austerity argue that the country already has excellent transport infrastructure (much of it linking up housing developments that are now moribund). They are right that further transport infrastructure spending in Spain may do little to boost activity over the longer-term, even if it provided a quick stimulus. But investment in education would. Half of Spain's youth drop out of high school before 18, have fewer marketable skills, and so impose massive claims on the taxpayer in the form of unemployment benefits later in life. Yet Spain is cutting the federal education budget by a fifth this year. 

This pattern is being repeated across the periphery. Portugal, Italy and Ireland have cut infrastructure spending by 0.4, 0.5 and 0.7 per cent of GDP respectively over the last two years, and are planning to go further. Italy and Portugal are reducing educational expenditure at all levels; Ireland is making small cuts to the schools budget but larger ones to spending on higher education. 

Is there a better way to consolidate the public finances without damaging growth, both in the short term and the long term? The UK's Social Market Foundation, and the International Monetary Fund, have recently suggested that Britain use the 'balanced budget multiplier', and cut areas of spending with low multipliers and recycle the money into investment. The UK fell into recession in the first quarter of 2012, partly because the government had slashed investment, which led to a fall in construction spending. Using the balanced budget multiplier ensures that austerity's impact on short-term output is as small as possible, and helps to encourage growth in the long term, as investments encourage private sector activity. This approach could be applied in the eurozone periphery: while immediate austerity is impossible to avoid without more help from the core, the periphery should seek to cut back further on low-growth areas of spending and hold investment steady, or increase it for a clearly defined period of time.

But what areas of spending should they cut? The area of government activity which has the lowest multiplier is the incentives which governments provide to encourage people to save more. By offering tax relief on direct contributions to private pension and saving pots, government money gets funnelled into consumption that will take place far in the future. This reduces demand in the short-term, as government money that could be spent now is spent later. Every government in the eurozone's periphery makes pension contributions tax-free up to certain limits, and then taxes pension income when workers retire and their pot is drawn down. Governments could switch this around: contributions could be taxed, and pension income made tax free. Alternatively, they could lower the amount that people can save without being taxed.

Other areas with low multipliers, such as welfare payments to middle class households (like child benefits) could also be considered. The reason is that people on higher incomes tend to save more of their income, so cash transfers to them have a low multiplier. The cash saved could then be recycled into public investment, which boosts economic growth.

The measures outlined here would not, of themselves, be sufficient to spur a marked recovery in demand. But as an approach to austerity – which is probably unavoidable in the periphery to some degree, given the way the eurozone is currently configured – it would be far less damaging to growth than the current policy of indiscriminate cuts. 

Such an approach should satisfy bond markets. Investors are unsure whether austerity is the only route out of the crisis, or whether it is self-defeating. If peripheral countries relax austerity, they risk investor flight and unaffordable bond yields, or they risk losing access to bail-out money from the Troika – the ECB, European Commission and IMF. Germany obsesses about moral hazard and governance. But if the periphery's governments demonstrate their political will to cut transfers and government consumption, and commit themselves to holding public investment steady, they could be considered worthier beneficiaries of German aid.

John Springford is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.