Thursday, May 2, 2013

2/5/2013: Austerity... savagely over-hyped?..

It was May 1 yesterday and in celebration of that great socialist holiday, "In Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand jobs and an end to years of belt-tightening".

Except, no one really asked them what did the mean by 'belt-tightening'. Some, correctly, meant by the term the concept of transfers from taxpayers (usually via higher taxes, rather than spending cuts) to the broken banks, but majority, undoubtedly, we decrying cuts in Government spending. You see, damned austerity is just that (or supposed to be just that): cuts in the levels of expenditure. These can mean reduction in absolute level of spending, or a reduction in spending as a proportion of GDP.

And, you see, not much of that is going on in Europe nowdays, despite all the fierce rhetoric about savage cuts.

Ok, let's do some exercises, using IMF data.

First, consider tax revenues:

In the chart above, I marked with darker columns countries where tax revenues as % of GDP have declined during the current crisis (more precisely, taking average tax revenues fior 2003-2007 pre-crisis boom days and comparing against 2012 outrun). Guess what?
  • In % of GDP terms, savage austerity meant that Government revenues have declined by less than 1 percentage point in Cyprus (-0.89 ppt), Czech Republic (-0.64 ppt) and Portugal (-0.08 ppt), the revenues have fallen by between 1 and 2 percentage points in Ireland (-1.26 ppt) and the UK (-1.68 ppt) and have declined by more than 2 percentage points in Denmark (-2.50 ppt), Spain (-3.28 ppt) and Sweden (-3.15 ppt).
  • All in, only 8 out of the 20 EU countries considered above (these are all advanced economies of the EU, excluding Luxembourg, where data is so dodgy, no meaningful analysis can be made) have managed to post any declines in Government revenues relative to GDP. All other countries have posted increases. Overall, sample average Government revenues as % of GDP stood at 43.04% in 2003-207 period and this has risen to 43.84% in 2012.
  • Now, onto levels of revenues. The sample of countries shown above had combined annual Government revenues of EUR7,791.61 billion in 2003-2007 on average. In 2012 this number stood at a 17.96% premium or EUR9,190.96 billion.
  • Of all 20 countries considered, only one - Ireland - had experienced level reduction in Government revenues, which dropped from an annual average of EUR57.896 billion in 2003-2007 period to EUR55.42 billion in 2012.
  • As I said above, there is only one meaningful form of austerity in Europe today: austerity of higher tax burdens on people.
Now, let's check out expenditure side of Europe's 'savage austerity' story:

Again, chart above highlights in darker color countries where Government expenditure had declined in 2012 compared to 2003-2007 pre-crisis average in % of GDP terms. The picture hardly shows much of any 'savage cuts' anywhere in sight:
  • Of the three countries that experienced reductions in Government spending as % of GDP compared to the pre-crisis period, Germany posted a decline of 1.26 percentage points (from 46.261% of GDP average for 2003-2007 period to 45.005% for 2012), Malta posted a reduction of just 0.349 ppt and Sweden posted a reduction of 1.37 ppt.
  • No peripheral country - where protestes are the loudest - or France et al have posted a reduction. In France, Government spending rose 3.44 ppt on pre-crisis level as % of GDP, in Greece by 4.76 ppt, in Ireland by 7.74 ppt, in Italy by 2.773 ppt, in Portugal by 0.562 ppt, and in Spain by 8.0 ppt.
  • Average Government spending in the sample in the pre-crisis period run at 44.36% of GDP and in 2012 this number was 48.05% of GDP. In other words: it went up, not down.
  • In level terms, things are even uglier for the 'anti-austerians'. Total (for this sample of countries) Government annual spending averaged EUR8,002 billion in 2003-2004 period and this rose to EUR9,941 billion in 2012 a rise in Government spending of whooping 24.2%.
  • In level terms, not a single country in the sample of 20 advanced EU economies posted a decline in Government spending from the pre-crisis period to 2012. All posted increases in overall spending ranging between 88% for Estonia, to 7.76% for Portugal. Of all peripheral countries, not one cut a single cent on 2003-20007 average spending levels, with Cyprus hiking spending by whooping 39.8% in 2012 compared to 2003-2007 averages, France delivering a massive increase of 24.9%, Greece raising it modestly by 8.73%, Ireland by a massive 22.01%, Italy by a relatively benign 14.67%, Portugal by the sample lowest rate of 7.76% and Spain by a jaw-dropping 38.67%.
  • All in, there is no 'savage austerity' in spending levels or as % of GDP.
So what is going on, folks? May be we can find austerity in deficits? Afterall, Paul Krugman & Co are telling us that we need to run deficits in the economy during recessions and this is the leitmotif to all of the anti-austerian policies proposals?

Savage austerity thesis must find at least a significantly large number of countries where there is no deficit financing going on during the crisis compared to pre-crisis activity, or at least a very large number of countries where deficits have declined compared to pre-crisis activity. Is that the case?

Sorry to say it, folks, errr... No. That is not the case.
  • Only three countries in the entire sample of 20 have posted decreases in Government deficits in level and as 5 of GDP terms.
  • In level terms, deficits declined in Germany, Italy and Malta. They rose in all other countries. Overall level of deficits in 20 countries analysed rose from EUR40.07 billion in 2003-2007 (annual averages) to EUR127.79 billion in 2012. In other words, during 'savage austerity' deficits tripled, not shrunk.
  • In terms of relative weight to GDP, deficits also declined only in three countries - the same three countries as above. 
  • Savage austerity meant that deficits increased in all peripheral states save Italy and that across 20 economies, whereas average deficit stood at -1.315% of GDP in 2003-2007 period, that rose to -4.215% of GDP in 2012.
As I said above, there are really two reasons for protesting in Europe today against what can very loosely be termed 'austerity':
  1. As taxpayers we should protest against higher taxes & charges levied against us by the States to pay for various banks rescue measures and for continued public spending inefficiencies and private sector subsidies (note: I am not saying that all public sector spending is inefficient, I am alleging that some of it remains inefficient today); and
  2. As taxpayers and residents we should protest about misallocation of scarce resources (including some public spending) from necessities (e.g. social welfare and unemployment protection, health, education, etc) to rescuing insolvent banks and corporate cronies.
Aside from the above reasons, please spare yourselves the blind belief in various Social Partners-produced spin about 'savage cuts'. All they care for is to increase even more state spending on their pet projects.

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