"Is it the 'How' or the 'When' that Matters in Fiscal Adjustments?" asks a recent NBER Working Paper (NBER Working Paper No. w22863). The authors, Alberto Alesina, Gualtiero Azzalini, Carlo A. Favero and Francesco Giavazzi ask a rather interesting and highly non-trivial question.
Much of recent debate about the austerity in the post-GFC world have focused on the timing of fiscal tightening. The argument here goes as follows: the Government should avoid tightening the pursue strings at the time of economic contraction or slowdown. Under this thesis, austerity has been the core cause of the prolonged and deep downturn in the euro area, as compared to to other economies, because austerity in the euro area was brought about during the downturn part of the business cycle.
However, there is an alternative view of the austerity impact. This view looks at the type of austerity policies being deployed. Here, the argument goes that austerity can take two forms: one form - that of reduced Government spending, another form - that of increased taxation.
There is some literature on the analysis of the effects of the two types of austerity compared to each other. But there is no literature, as far as I am aware, that looks at the impact of austerity across different types, while controlling for the timing of austerity policies implementation.
The NBER paper does exactly that. And it uses data from 16 OECD economies covering time period of 1981 through 2014 - allowing for both heterogeneity amongst economic systems and cycles, as well as full accounting of the most recent Great Recession experiences.
The authors "find that the composition of fiscal adjustments is much more important than the state of the cycle in determining their effects on output." So that the 'How' austerity is structured is "much more important" in determining its effects than the 'When' austerity is introduced.
More specifically, "adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly than those based upon tax increases regardless of whether they start in a recession or not." This is self explanatory.
But there is an added kicker (emphasis is mine): the overall "results appear not to be systematically explained by different reactions of monetary policy. However, when the domestic central bank can set interest rates -- that is outside of a currency union -- it appears to be able to dampen the recessionary effects of tax-based consolidations implemented during a recession." Now, here is a clear cut evidence of just how disastrous the euro has been for the real economies in Europe during the current crisis. As the authors note, correctly, "European austerity... was mostly tax based and implemented within a currency union". In other words, Europe choose the worst possible type of austerity (tax-based), implemented in the worst possible period (during a recession) and within the worst possible monetary regime (common currency zone).
In allegorical terms, the euro zone was like a food-starved runner starting a marathon by shooting himself in a knee.