Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Economics 19/05/2010: Euro rescue and tax burdens

So the Euro has hit 1.219 against the USD last night and has been bouncing erratically throughout today. The markets are flashing red across pretty much entire listings on the back of German 'talking tough' to the speculators. Rumors of Greeks contemplating an exit from the euro are swirling across the forex traders'-frequented blogs. ECB has abandoned all caution and previous policy mandates and is now pumping euros out of FX markets. Sterilizing Europe's economy into a liquidity crisis, before the insolvency crisis is resolved.

In short, there is a clear lack of conviction in the markets about the Euro area plans for more fiscal discipline, as well as a general apprehension about the bans of naked shorts. This is a direct corollary of the 'rescue' package and the political rhetoric that surrounded German Government decision to back the PIIGS - or more aptly BAN-PIIGS - debts. Yesterday, John Cochrane of UofC, my old professor - had a superb analysis of the whole circus (here).

Of course, banning naked shorts for their alleged role in causing market panics is like banning oxygen for its role in causing fires. Short sales positions are about the last bastion of transparency in the murky waters of sovereign finances.

But take a look as to why the entire package of 'fiscal oversight' proposed by the EU has no legs.

First there is an argument to be made that the 'new package' is really 'old news'. In effect it simply front-loads the Stability Programme Updates reporting (currently submitted to Brussels for approval ex post adoption of the budgets). In theory, supplying SPU statements prior to the budget is supposed to provide for (1) time to adjust budgetary positions in response to the Commission criticism; and (2) a chance for 'peer-review' of the budgetary proposals. Apparently, no individual lines of either spending or taxation will be considered, but instead, the headline figures (macro side) will be looked at.

What's wrong with this picture? A lot.
  1. Stability & Growth pact already tasks the EU Commission with such oversight and with tools to fine serial abusers. Yet, countries like Greece have been in an obvious violation of the SGP criteria since at least the late 1980s and nothing was done to enforce the existent compliance mechanism. France has been in violation for about 8 out of 11 years of SGP application. Italy - since the foundation of EMU. The list can go on.
  2. Peer-review by fellow countries does not work in international policy processes. Look no further than heavily edited (by Member States) 'consultative' documents from the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank and so on. States do not criticise states and there is no real mechanics for ensuring that euro area peer review is going to have any more integrity than the 'business-as-usual' Brussels approach to policy making and analysis.
  3. Creation of a formal Eurozone-wide supervisory mechanism will de facto guarantee future bailouts, thus inducing a massive moral hazard on future Governments and fueling risk appetite for the markets. After all, if the budgets are approved collectively, there is at least an implicit collective responsibility when things go wrong. As rightly argued in John Cochrane's article linked above, such a guarantee will be an open invitation to continued unsustainable risk-free lending to the reckless sovereigns from the bond markets.
  4. With peer review mechanism having no real power, the power to police deficits will fall with the Commission. Does anyone have any serious belief that the Commission has whereabouts to enforce the restrictions it cannot adhere to itself? After all, the Commission has failed, repeatedly, to clear its own budgets in the past. And very little positive can be said about the Commission historical ability to produce high level macroeconomic policy analysis. Do we need to be reminded of the Lisbon Agenda or the Social Economy or the Knowledge Economy or the latest pie-in-the-sky Agenda 2020?
  5. Lacking specific powers to go through the member states' budgets line by line - covering all of the expenditure and revenue measures - the oversight process will simply be out of power to either alter anything in response to adverse findings, or to even understand the nature of and risks involved in each headline budgetary projection.
  6. Front loading SPU reporting will do nothing to the Budgetary outcomes, as SPUs, alongside the Budgets are subject to built-in assumptions/expectations. Are we really saying the Commission will be able to tell, for example, Irish Government: 'Boys, you are assuming here economic growth of 4% in year X. That's not going to happen. Revise?' I doubt it.
Notice, I am disregarding the longer-term economic side of the proposal. The EU Commission, as well as many peer states in the review process will have a heavily pro-tax Government spending-favoring and economic growth retarding policies. The Commission, alongside many peer member states consistently believe that budgetary / fiscal health is assured when tax revenue equals tax expenditure (roughly speaking). And they believe that more expenditure is a good thing. Thus, the process is likely to be biased heavily in favour of high-tax, high-spend economic development model. Of course, there isn't a country on earth that has been able to deliver such a model while maintaining dynamic economy. Are we settling Europe into a slow decay model that suits declining demographics of the Continent?

Here is the comparative table on tax revenue collected by the various advanced economies in the boom year of 2007. Notice that the countries currently in trouble - the BAN-PIIGS (Belgium, Austria, Netherlands + PIIGS):
What does this analysis tell us?
  • Tax revenues as a share of economy is well above average for BAN-PIIGS. So low taxes are not a problem that caused their bankruptcy.
  • The structure of taxation - the spread over various tax heads, is pretty much even across various heads, suggesting that over-reliance on a specific tax head is not a cause of excessive deficits.
  • The deficits, at least on revenue side, simply could not have been caused by the adverse recessionary shocks.
All of this means that the deficits are structural. And that the debt accumulation was not only visible well before the crisis (which of course means that SGP supervision has failed) but was also caused by the expenditure side of the Government balance sheets.

Remember, these figures are from the boom-time 2007! And take a look at Ireland, expressed in GNP terms. The table below is self-explanatory:
So we do live between Boston and Berlin, folks? And we do have exceptionally low tax burden? We really do need more the Brussels-styled fiscal discipline?
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