Friday, May 4, 2012

4/5/2012: Irish Examiner 26/4/2012: Is there an alternative to austerity?

This an unedited version of my article that appeared in the Irish Examiner, April 26, 2012.

However one interprets the core parameters of the fiscal discipline to be imposed under the Fiscal Compact, several facts concerning the new treaty and Ireland’s position with respect to it are indisputable. Firstly, the new treaty will restrict the scope for future exchequer deficits. Combined structural and general deficit targets to be imposed imply a maximum deficit of 2.9-3.0 percent in 2012 as opposed to the IMF-projected general government net borrowing of 8.5% of GDP. Secondly, it will impose a severe long-term debt ceiling, but that condition will not be satisfied by Ireland any time before 2030 or even later.

At the same time, the Troika programme for fiscal adjustment that Ireland is currently adhering to implies a de facto satisfaction of the Fiscal Compact deficit bound after 2015, and non-fulfilment of the structural deficit rule any time between now and 2017. In other words, no matter how we spin it, in the foreseeable future, we will remain a fiscally rouge state, client of the Troika and its successor – the ESM.

Let me run though some hard numbers – all based on IMF latest forecasts. Even under the rather optimistic scenario, Ireland’s real GDP is expected to grow by an average of 2.27% in the period from 2012 through 2017. This is the highest forecast average rate of growth for the entire euro area excluding the Accession states (the EA12 states). And yet, this growth will not be enough to lift us out of the Sovereign debt trap. Averaging just 10.3% of GDP, our total investment in the economy will be the lowest of all EA12 states, while our gross national savings are expected to average just 13.2% of GDP, the second lowest in the EA12.

In short, our real economy will be bled dry by the debt overhang – a combination of the protracted deleveraging and debt servicing costs. It is the combination of the government debt and the unsustainable levels of households’ and corporate indebtedness that is cutting deep into our growth potential, not the austerity-driven reduction in public spending.

There is absolutely no evidence to support the suggestion that increasing the national debt beyond the current levels or that increasing dramatically tax burden on the general population – the two measures that would allow us to slow down the rate of reductions in public expenditure planned under the Troika deal – can support any appreciable economic expansion. The reason for this is simple. According to the data, smaller advanced economies with the average Government expenditure burden in the economy of ca 31-35% of GDP have expected growth rates of 3.5% per annum. Countries that have Government spending accounting for 40% and more of GDP have projected rates of growth closer to 1.5% per annum. Ireland neatly falls between the two groups of states both in terms of the Government burden and the economic growth rate.

Despite the already deep austerity, Irish Exchequer will continue running excess spending throughout the adjustment period. Between 2012 and 2017, Irish government net borrowing is expected to average 4.7% of GDP per annum, the second highest in the EA12 group of countries. Put differently, calling on the Government to deploy some sort of fiscal spending stimulus today is equivalent to asking a heart attack patient to run a marathon in the Olympics. Between this year and 2017, our Government will spend some €47.4 billion more than it will collect in taxes, even if the current austerity course continues. Of these, €39 billion of expenditure will go to finance structural deficits, implying a direct cyclical stimulus of more than €8.4 billion.

The exports-driven economy of Ireland simply cannot sustain even the austerity-consistent levels of Government spending. IMF projects that between 2012 and 2017 cumulative current account surpluses in Ireland will be €40 billion. This forecast implies that 2017 current account surplus for Ireland will be €10 billion – a level that is 56 times larger than our current account surplus in 2011. If we are to take a more moderate assumption of current account surpluses running around 2012-2013 projected levels through 2017, our Government deficits are likely to be closer to €53 billion.

In short, there is really no alternative to the austerity, folks, no matter how much we wish for this not to be the case.

Instead, what we do have is the choice of austerity policies to pursue. We can either continue to tax away incomes of the middle and upper-middle classes, or we cut deeper into public expenditure. The former will mean accelerating loss of productivity due to skills and talent outflows from the country, reduced entrepreneurship and starving the younger companies of investment, rising pressure on wages in skills-intensive occupations, while destroying future capacity of the middle-aged families to support themselves through retirement. The latter is the choice to continue reducing our imports-intensive domestic consumption and cutting the spending power of the public sector employees, while enacting deep structural reforms to increase value-for-money outputs in the state sectors. Both choices are painful and short-term recessionary, but only the latter one leads to future growth. The former choice is only consistent with giving vitamins to a cancer-ridden patient – sooner or later, the placebo effect of the ‘stimulus’ will fade, and the cancer of debt overhang will take over once again, with even greater vengeance.

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