Three Speeds In Europe, All Slower

Three Speeds In Europe, All SlowerBy Michael Burke

The latest publication of the GDP data for the EU shows three distinct trends but one unifying theme – slower growth.

In an important but dwindling group are those economies which are still expanding, led by Germany where GDP grew by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2012. In a larger group are those countries where the economy is stagnant. This now includes France which recorded zero growth in the quarter. The largest numerical group are those countries in recession, which includes Britain, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. The net result was that both the Euro Area group of 17 countries and the EU group of 26 recorded zero growth in the quarter.

If the focus shifts to the 12-month growth rates, comparing the first quarter of 2012 to the same quarter in 2011, the picture is even more stark. Outside of the Baltic States, which are still recovering from a 1930s-style Depression with the aid of substantial EU investment , only two countries recorded growth above 1.0%. These were Finland at 2.9% and Germany at 1.2%. The fact that the German motor of the EU economy is sputtering close to 1% growth is cause for alarm. It suggests that the entire EU economy is decelerating, and that the risk of renewed recession is increasing.

In fact this is the EU Commission’s forecast for 2012; a contraction of 0.3% for the Euro Area and zero growth in the EU as a whole. For the Euro Area 12-month growth is also now zero, and for the EU as a whole it is just 0.1%.

Even for the group of countries where growth has been strongest, growth is clearly slowing. The deceleration of the German economy is important for the entire European economy. These trends are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

But there are a growing number of countries that have headed back into recession, including Britain, Spain and the Netherlands – Figure 2. France has grown by just 0.1% in the last 6 months and maybe headed in the same direction. There is little to suggest that growth can accelerate with current policies.
Figure 2

The Euro Area has contracted by 0.3% in the last 6 months as has the EU as a whole. The crisis countries continue to contract sharply, led by Greece – Figure 3. However, the much greater weight of the Italian economy, seven times larger than the Greek economy, means that its clear slump is even more significant for the European crisis.
Figure 3

Formerly stronger economies are experiencing a slowdown in growth. Crucially this includes Germany. Other countries, such as Britain where growth had been stagnant have gone back into recession. This is also true for Spain and the Netherlands. France may be headed in the same direction. Significant falls in output are still occurring in the crisis-hit countries. These may now appear to be joined by Italy, where the crisis is deepening.

T Walkerhttps://www.blogger.com/profile/11107827543023820698noreply@blogger.com0

What do bond markets think of ‘austerity’?

What do bond markets think of ‘austerity’?By Michael Burke

The victory of Francois Hollande in the French Presidential contest provides a further insight into the operation of the bond markets. It is frequently argued that there can be no retreat from ‘austerity’, which in reality is simply the transfer of incomes from labour and the poor to capital and the rich, because the bond markets will recoil and long-term interest rates will soar. This is important as significantly higher long-term interest rates could, unchecked, choke off recovery.

As the new French President has made some gestures in the direction away from ‘austerity’, then it should be expected that at least French long-term interest rates would rise as a result. But French government bond yields have fallen since the Socialist victory, by 18bps (basis points, equivalent to one hundredth of a percentage point, or 0.18 per cent). Ten-year French government bond yields declined to 2.79 per cent1, lower than before the election.

It could be argued that financial markets do not believe Hollande will carry through a genuine alternative to cuts in wages and public spending programmes. He was certainly cautious enough in his pronouncements to support that idea. Even so, he is not Sarkozy who directly promised further cuts and some uncertainly remains among financial market commentators about whether, or how quickly, the new President will change course. At the very least his commitment to verbal support for austerity is less than his predecessor. Clearly, the assertion that the bond markets will punish any slight step away from ‘austerity’ is incorrect.

In fact, the German powerhouse has increased economic divergence within the EU because it has not adopted itself the prescription it has insisted on for others. The latest departure from orthodoxy is the call for higher German wages from Finance Minister Schauble.2 Yet German yields also fell to 1.55 per cent and remain the lowest in the Euro Area.

Role of bond markets

It is important to distinguish between the views expressed nightly on our TV screens by ‘experts’ from the financial markets and the actions of the main bond investors, pension, insurance, sovereign wealth funds and others. The most famous ‘expert’ in the world is Bill Gross, Chief Investment Officer for one of the world’s largest bond funds PIMCO. Previously, he very publicly announced he was selling all US government debt holdings because of quantitative easing in the US and Obama’s fiscal stimulus. He was later forced to apologise to investors and buy back US government bonds he had sold, having missed a huge rally in bond prices (which leads to lower yields).

It is necessary to explain briefly the role of bond investors. The creation of a national debt is one of the primary ways in which financial capital establishes its dominance over the rest of the economy. Debt interest is supplied by diverting income from the productive sectors of the economy. Since all value is created by labour, labour is also the ultimate source of all debt interest. This entails a transfer of income from labour to capital. In fact, given the regressive tax changes that have taken place in many industrialised countries including Britain, labour and the poor are also the direct source of that transfer of incomes, as they supply the bulk of all tax revenues (income tax, VAT, etc.).

For any sector of capital the main motivation, its raison d’être is the maximisation of capital. Ordinarily this means the expansion of capital at the maximum sustainable rate. But in a crisis where losses are anticipated, maximisation can mean simply preservation. Industrial capital is currently being hoarded via the investment strike. It is being preserved. For finance capital, specifically the portion that is allocated to government bonds, the main important indicators are usually, growth, inflation, government deficit levels and so on. All of these are gauged in order to optimise the sustainable expansion of capital through interest payments.

But in a crisis the focus will switch to the preservation of capital. This is why Germany, with its large external surpluses and falling budget deficits remains the strongest borrower in the EU even while increasing investment and wages. Investors believe they are certain to get their money back. In an extreme crisis, these investors may even been willing to accept the prospect of small losses in order to preserve the bulk of their capital, and interest rates have occasionally been negative in countries like Switzerland and Japan .

The very modest changes in French government bond yields are evidence of this dominant factor. The possibility of even a very modest adjustment in the drive towards ‘austerity’ has increased the likelihood that French bond investors will be repaid, that there will be no default on French government debt. The productive sectors of the economy, which finance the debt interest, may be in a slightly stronger position to do so if they are faced with slightly fewer cuts.

Varied Responses

Not all EU government bond markets rose in the wake of the French Presidential poll. Those countries where bond prices fell, so pushing up interest rates, include Greece (with its own inconclusive election), but also Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. They have all adopted a programme of public spending and other cuts, with different degrees of severity.

Their policies are the opposite of the verbal gestures Hollande has made in the direction of stimulating growth. The most extreme case is Greece where ten-year yields are over 23 per cent. But in a country like Ireland, which is routinely held up as the example of successful ‘austerity’, yields on some debt have risen by 50bps in the last week alone.

In the current crisis, bond market investors are obliged to consider whether they will preserve their capital, not just how they may be able to increase it. They have already experienced final losses of a partial default in Greece. In many of the crisis-hit countries current bond prices are considerably below where they were issued.

They have been faced with a new choice of at least a verbal commitment to growth from France, and persistent ‘austerity’ in many other countries. The response has been to buy French government bonds and sell those where the governments, via the ‘Troika’ in some cases, are committed to further cuts. This is because the judgement is that the investors’ capital is more likely to be preserved via growth than through austerity.

The repeated assertion that pro-growth policies cannot be adopted because of the negative reaction of the bond markets is a false one.


1 All yields taken from Financial Times, benchmark government bond yields, 9 May 2012
2 ‘Schauble backs wage rises for Germans’, Financial Times, 6 May 2012T Walkerhttps://www.blogger.com/profile/11107827543023820698noreply@blogger.com0

The campaign to prevent Londoners knowing they will be £1,000 better off with Ken Livingstone as Mayor

The campaign to prevent Londoners knowing they will be £1,000 better off with Ken Livingstone as Mayor

During the last month an extraordinary media campaign has been waged to attempt to persuade Londoners that the main issue which confronts them at the election for Mayor is not how much they, that is Londoners, will be better off with either of the two candidates for Mayor – that is which candidates policies will best protect Londoners living standards from the effects of the economic downturn. Instead, in circumstances when most Londoners are facing the most difficult economic times they have ever experienced, the main issue confronting London is supposed to be the personal tax arrangements of candidates.

What is the purpose of this frenetic campaign? It is to attempt to divert Londoners attention from knowing that most of them will be £1,000 or more better off with Ken Livingstone, due to his fares reduction and other policies, and that they will be £1,000 or more worse off with Boris Johnson. To check these figures, and to calculate how much you would save personally yourself, simply go to http://www.betteroffcalculator.com/.

Why is such a strange campaign waged? Evidently because if Londoners realize that they will be £1,000 or more better off with Ken as Mayor then Ken will win the election easily. The only way to try to prevent them knowing this to attempt to make a great noise about something else to try to distract attention from this fact.

As it happens the reality on the tax, as the published figures show, is Ken Livingstone has paid 35% in tax and Boris Johnson 40% – as Boris Johnson earned eight times as much as Ken Livingstone if he didn’t pay a higher rate there would be something wrong with the tax system! But the whole issue, whatever happens, leaves Londoners not one penny better off. 

This really is the critical issue of the next four weeks until the Mayoral election. There are few things Londoners can do that will make them and their families £1,000 better off – and quite a lot will be more than £1,000 better off. That they can be £1,000 better off in half an hour by going to vote, and thereby making their families significantly better off, is one of the easiest things they can do.

Ken Livingstone has four weeks to make sure Londoners know they can be £1,000 or more better off if he is Mayor. The media supporting Boris Johnson, by campaigning on tax or any other issue they can think of, has four weeks to attempt to prevent Londoners knowing they can be more than £1,000 better off with Ken as Mayor and £1,000 worse off with Boris Johnson.

Which of these two campaigns is successful will decide the outcome of the Mayoral election.

Calculate how much money you will be better off by if Ken wins on 3 May – for readers in London

Calculate how much money you will be better off by if Ken wins on 3 May – for readers in LondonKen Livingstone’s campaign for Mayor of London has published a calculator which allows you to find out how much better off in money terms you will be if you live in London and Ken is elected Mayor on 3 May. You can calculate the result for yourself here. Why not find it out for yourself and encourage those you know to also find out? If you want to pass on the link it is http://www.betteroffcalculator.com/

The incredible shrinking UK economy

.536ZThe incredible shrinking UK economy

By John Ross

The magnitude of the blow suffered by the UK economy since the beginning of the financial crisis is very considerably minimized by not presenting it in terms of a common international yardstick. Gauged by decline in GDP, using a common international purchasing measure, dollars, no other economy in the world has shrunk even remotely as much as the UK (Figure 1 and Table 1).

As most countries produce only annualized GDP data it will be necessary to wait before a comprehensive global comparison can be made for 2011. However it is clear no substantial growth in dollar terms took place in the UK economy during that year – GDP at national current prices rose only 1.4 per cent between the 1st and 3rd quarters and the change in the pound’s exchange rate against the dollar during the year was a marginal 0.3 per cent. Therefore there will have been no significant recovery from the UK data set out in Table 1 below, and the gap between the UK and other European economies, which form the next worst performing major group, is too great to have been qualitatively affected by changes in the Euro’s exchange rate – the Euro declined against the pound by only 3.3 per cent in 2011.

Table 1 shows that the fall in UK GDP in 2007-2010 was $562 billion compared to the next worst performing national economy, Italy, with a decline of $65 billion – i.e. the decline in UK GDP in the common measuring yardstick of dollars was more than eight times that of the next worst performing national economy. Table 1 shows the 10 national economies suffering the greatest declines in dollar GDP.

It is also extremely striking that the UK’s decline was more than two and a half times that of the entire Eurozone. The UK accounted for a somewhat astonishing 77 per cent of the EU’s decline.

Table 1

12 01 13 Table 1

Figure 1

12 01 13 UK GDP decline in dollars

Expressed in percentage terms the situation is no better. of all economies for which World Bank data is available only Iceland, with a decline in dollar GDP of 38.4 per cent, suffered a worst percentage fall than the UK – even bail out economy Ireland, with a fall of 18.4 per cent, outperformed the UK economy.

Two trends intersected for the UK’s performance to be so much worse than that of any other economy. First, contrary to the government’s anti-European rhetoric, UK economic performance in constant price national currency terms has been significantly worse than the Eurozone during the financial crisis (Figure 2). Up to the latest available data, for the 3rd quarter of 2011, UK GDP was still 3.6 per cent below its pre-financial crisis peak compared to the Eurozone’s 1.7 per cent below. Second, between the beginning of 2008 and the beginning of 2012, the pound’s exchange rate has fallen by 21.0 per cent against the dollar compared to the Euro’s 11.4 per cent drop in the same period. The multiplicative effect of the severity of the relative drop in constant price GDP and the fall in the pound’s exchange rate accounts for the unequalled decline in UK GDP in dollars.

Figure 2

12 01 14 UK & Eurozone GDP

As at present the UK economy shows no substantial sign of recovery, the present UK government, which maintains a steadfastly ostrich like attitude towards Europe in particular, and most other countries in general, may argue that a measure in terms of dollars at current exchange rates is irrelevant – the UK currency is the pound and what counts is constant price shifts. Such an argument is false and an attempt to disguise the true scale of the decline of the UK economy.

The internationally unmatched decline in UK dollar GDP is a huge fall in real international purchasing ability. The far higher than targeted inflation in the UK during the last two years, which has substantially eroded the population’s living standards, is itself in part a reflecton of the decline in the UK’s exchange rate and consequent raising of import prices. In short, the decline in the international purchasing power of the UK’s economy translates into a direct fall in real incomes. The decline in the UKs ranking among world economies in terms of GDP, being recently overtaken by Brazil, statistically reflects the same process .

It may also be seen that the government’s claim that the UK is outperforming Europe and the Eurozone is entirely without foundation even in constant price national currency terms. But when measured in terms of real international comparisons, i.e. in dollars, the UK’s performance is incomparably worse than Europe’s.

It appears extremely unlikely that the UK’s economy will escape from this circle of decline in the next period. The austerity policies pursued by the present UK government have substantially slowed the economic recovery that was taking place in 2009 and the first part of 2010 – between the 3rd quarter of 2010 and the 3rd quarter of 2011 the UK economy grew by only 0.5 per cent. The opposition Labour Party has recently also endorsed essentially the same austerity policies which have failed not only in the UK but in other European economies, such as Greece and Ireland, where they have been pursued.

Even if any partial recovery takes place, for example by some increase in the exchange rate of the pound against the Euro, the sheer magnitude of the decline in the UK economy makes it implausible that this could be on a scale sufficient to reverse the fall in its relative international position.

* * *

This article originally appeared on Key Trends in Globalisation.

UK stagnation turns to risk of double-dip recession

.479ZUK stagnation turns to risk of double-dip recession

By Michael Burke

The Construction Products Association (CPA) is forecasting a ‘double-dip’ UK recession for the construction industry in 2012 and compares the latest slump to that of 10 years ago – the last Tory recession under Major when 600,000 construction industry jobs were lost. The CPA is well-placed to judge the near-term outlook as it comprises all the main suppliers to the construction industry.

For most of 2011 the majority of commentary on the British economy veered between expectations of a strong boom and, more recently projections for a double-dip recession. The reality was more prosaic – with the economy stagnating, growing by just 0.5% over the latest 12-month period.

This is because most commentators ignored the actual cause of the prior recovery and the key factor which would reverse it. SEB has previously shown how the recovery was caused by the increase in government spending, both current spending (mainly increased welfare payments but also the Labour government’s cut in VAT) and increased government investment (Building Schools for the Future, etc.).

Reversal of Government Spending

The renewed economic stagnation arises because both parts of government spending have now been cut. Welfare benefits have been cut, which is disastrous for many recipients but also undermines household consumption as does the hike in VAT. Household consumption is the biggest single category of GDP. The policies that supported household consumption added 1.2% to GDP growth during the recovery and until Labour left office. In the period since the Tories took office the decline in household consumption has reduced GDP by 0.6%. Similarly government investment increased under Labour and directly added 0.8% to GDP over the course of the recession. Government investment fell immediately the Tory-led Coalition took office and has subtracted 1.0% from GDP over that period.

Taken together the combined effects of Labour’s increased spending added 1.8% to GDP, while the policies of this government have subtracted 1.6% from GDP.

Effects of Changing Fiscal Stance

The March 2011 Budget detailed a ‘fiscal tightening’, that is tax increases (except for companies) and spending cuts amounting to £41bn. By the 3rd quarter approximately half of that tightening will have taken place as it is 6 months into the Financial Year. £41bn is approximately equivalent to 2.7% of GDP. The previous recovery saw the economy expand by 2.8% over 5 quarters. Therefore the direct effect of the fiscal tightening currently under way is to remove growth almost entirely from the economy, hence stagnation.

Unfortunately the extent of the damage does not end there. The fiscal tightening is only half-complete this year and yet there is already stagnation. This is because each sector of the economy is connected to the other. So, declining government spending in the form of firing public sector workers will lead to falling household consumption, and both will affect business investment.

Since each economic sector responds variably to a change in another sector’s activity, and often with a time lag, it is impossible to assign a precisely distributed causal effect of a change in fiscal policy. But we have noted above that Labour’s increased spending of 1.8% of GDP led to a recovery which added 2.8% to GDP. This demonstrates the way the state can lead economic activity in total. This is what Keynes called the ‘multiplier effect’ as the private sector responds to increased government spending. In this case the multiplier is 1.56 (the ratio of 2.8% to increased spending equal to 1.8% of GDP).

In reality the multiplier is probably considerably higher as there is a pronounced time lag while the business sector responds to changes in government spending. SEB has previously shown that private sector investment has consistently risen or fallen 6 months after changes in output. So, the private sector continued to invest for 6 months after the Coalition took office, and this was in response to the increased spending by the Labour government.

Therefore, without taking account of other factors such as net exports or an unwanted build-up of inventories, the direct and indirect impact of the current government’s cuts should be multiplied by 1.56. This would subtract 4.2% from GDP and almost certainly lead to renewed economic contraction. The government also plans £61bn of fiscal tightening in the next Financial Year, beginning in April.

Construction Investment

The construction sector is highly responsive to the business cycle as it relies on a high level of current investment. The CPA estimate that it is headed for a double-dip recession is therefore highly significant. This will sharpen the already acute shortage of affordable homes, either to buy or rent at a time when 300,000 construction workers have already been made unemployed. Local authorities throughout Britain are desperate for funds to build new homes, from which they could derive an income way above the cost of borrowing even with affordable rents. Instead of providing funds to them, George Osborne has provided £40bn in ‘credit easing’ to small and medium sized enterprises. They will not build homes, provide decent affordable housing and employ workers with these funds.

But the State could because it is a vastly more efficient provider of large-scale housing as well as infrastructure projects. The government and its supporters like to promote the falsehood that ‘there is no money left’. But £40bn of loans to local authorities and public bodies could go a long way to easing the housing crisis. It would also go some way to averting the likelihood of a double dip recession.

From the government’s perspective the only stumbling-block is that it would remove the main responsibility for construction from the hands of the private sector and place it in the hands of the public sector. This is of course what happened to most of the shareholder-held banking sector in Britain during the last crisis. It seems that nationalisation is only permissible when bondholders and shareholders are being rescued. But it is not allowed if it is to rescue the unemployed, those paying extortionate rents for substandard homes or even the economy as a whole.

When British thieves and French thieves fall out – the Anglo-French governmental dispute in perspective

.413ZWhen British thieves and French thieves fall out – the Anglo-French governmental dispute in perspective

By Michael Burke

The French and British authorities are engaged in a war of words over which country will be first to be downgraded by the credit ratings agencies. At least the hostilities are purely verbal – these ‘heroes’ of Tripoli are prepared to use other methods when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favour.

The immediate cause of the dispute was initially the remarks of French central bank governor Noyer. In response to the threat from Standard & Poor’s (S&P), one of the credit ratings agencies, that France would be downgraded, he argued that Britain should be downgraded first because its economic fundamentals are worse than those of France.

The remarks caused predictable uproar in Britain. Even the leadership of the LibDems, the main representatives of the pro-EU business class in Britain discovered its nationalist roots and criticised the remarks. But Noyer argued that, ‘they [S&P] should start by downgrading Britain which has more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us and where credit is slumping’. Essentially, Noyer is correct on the relative ‘fundamentals’. But this focus on the ‘fundamentals’ also demonstrates a shared and thorough misunderstanding of the nature of the crisis.

The table below shows the relative levels for each of the indicators specified by Noyer. The estimates are taken from the EU Commission Autumn forecasts.

Table 1

11 12 22 Table 1

It is clear that the Noyer observations are correct. The British government’s credit rating is also under threat as the economy weakens. Yet France’s downgrade seems likely to happen even sooner. More importantly, the French government is currently paying over one per cent more for 10 year government debt than the UK so that its effective market rating is already lower than Britain’s. This is despite the lower deficit, lower inflation and higher growth in France.

This demonstrates that Noyer is looking in the wrong place for the determinants of bond yields. Bond yields are not primarily determined by the nominal level even of important economic variables. Ultimately the price of any given financial market asset is determined by the real level of savings that are directed towards it. In countries such as Britain, the US and Japan the very high level of corporate savings must ultimately be held in some financial asset, and in the current circumstances of weak or stagnant growth government bonds have looked far more attractive than their only main alternative, which is stocks. 10 year debt yields are currently below 2% in the US and below 1% in Japan. This is true even though government debt and deficit levels are even higher in the US and Japan than either France or Britain. UK companies cannot invest in financial instruments in another currency without exposing themselves to exchange rate risk.

For investors in French government bonds the situation is different. There is an easy alternative – German government bonds also denominated in Euros. The rising premium on French yields represents the increased perceived risk of the Euro breaking up, in which case investors prefer to hold the debt of the strongest economy in the Euro Area.

The key relevant ‘fundamental’ for the Eurozone is that investors may choose between different governments’ credits. That is, there is a market mechanism for redirecting savings towards one country – and there is no fiscal mechanism to transfer savings in the opposite direction. Just as in other Eurozone economies, bond yields started to rise in France as soon as ‘austerity’ measures were introduced. Investors based in the Euro have greater prospects of being repaid if they invest in government bonds where the economy will grow, not stagnate or decline.

French and British Both Wrong

The growth outlook is sharply deteriorating in both France and Britain. In the Spring Forecast the EU Commission was projecting 2% growth for both Britain and France in 2012. In the Autumn Forecast the Commission is forecasting just 0.6% growth. Both governments are pursuing ‘austerity’ policies which are clearly not working.

They have both also invested an enormous political capital in the maintenance of the AAA rating for their government debt and argued that their policies would reduce their budget deficits. As we have seen, both governments debt ratings are likely to be downgraded in 2012. And both countries are projected to have a deficit in 2013 which, five years after the recession began, is still double the level it was in 2007, before downturn began.

The failure of their policies has led not to a re-think, but in both cases to blaming foreigners. The unwillingness to correct a failed policy is the cause of the diversionary war of words between the two governments.

The most ridiculous aspect of their policy is that both governments claim that their policy is driven by the demands of financial markets. Yet the government bond markets are sending a very clear signal. Long-term interest rates are either at the current inflation rate as in France, or below it in Britain. They are so low because businesses are saving, not investing. Businesses feel more confident lending to the government than investing on their own account. But both governments insist on cutting spending. If that leads to renewed recession the effect will be to cut further the level of savings in the economy – and bond yields may start to rise.

Corporate savings are being lent to the governments at exceptionally low interest rates. This glut of corporate savings could be used to invest for recovery. Since businesses themselves refuse to do this, only the state can end the company investment strike.

EU Summit Is Another Failure for ‘Austerity’

.047ZEU Summit Is Another Failure for ‘Austerity’

By Michael Burke

The outcome of the EU summit has widely been hailed in the British media as a triumph for David Cameron. It is rare that a complete rupture and isolation in multi-party negotiations is regarded as a triumph – but this is a function of the dominant and still growing xenophobia of the British press.

The EU Commission will now impose further spending cuts and rules to enforce deficit limits across the whole of the EU. David Cameron did not oppose these measures because they lead to public spending cuts- he is cutting public spending by a greater proportion of GDP than any major country which has not been in receipt of EU/IMF funds for its creditors.

Cameron’s stated objective was a defence of the interests of the City of London. There is a question mark over whether he has even be able to achieve that. Angela Knight, former Tory MP and chief spokesperson for the British Bankers Association guardedly told The Times that she hoped that City’s interests would not be harmed by Britain’s isolation.

Holding Back the Tide

‘Let all men know how empty and powerless is the power of kings’. So said King Canute in demonstrating to sycophantic courtiers the impossibility of instructing the advancing tidewaters to retreat. But it seems that the thinking of the EU Commission has retreated behind even that of Dark Age monarchs.

In response to the economic, fiscal and balance of payments crises in Europe, the EU summit in Brussels agreed to issue a series of regulations- to prevent these crises being manifest at the level of government deficits. A new rule that so-called structural deficits will not exceed 0.5% of GDP has been introduced . The EU Commission will be given prior oversight of the national Budgets. Given the impossibility of factually establishing the level of the structural deficit (which depends on extremely approximate estimates of potential output) then the combination is a recipe for complete control by the EU Commission – the economic geniuses who have led Greece and Ireland to disaster.

While it is impossible to precisely quantify the structural deficit it is practically impossible to determine the level of the government deficit simply by controlling spending. This is because the deficit reflects the gap between government spending and income. Government incomes are overwhelmingly taxation revenues and these are determined by the spending of consumers and the spending of businesses (primarily investment).

To achieve the precise control over its own income, as demanded by the new agreement, the European governments would have to determine the incomes and spending of both other main sectors of the economy, consumers and businesses. And, in a currency union it would also have to ensure that the overseas sector was not a significant net lender or borrower (through large trade or current account deficits/surpluses). Otherwise, if the other domestic sectors remained in broad balance, a large trade deficit could only result in a large government deficit.

This is show in Figure 1 below. The chart shows the sectoral balances in leading EU economies and the EU as well as the change between 2006 and 2009. The chart is taken from the Financial Times and is based on OECD data.

Figure 1


Simple national accounting identities mean that the increased savings of one sector of the economy must be reflected in the increased deficit of another. In all cases the balances shown below, the government balance (the public sector deficit/surplus), the private sector balances (the savings/consumption of the private sector) and the overseas sector (the current account balance) sums to zero, as they must.

Within each national economy of the EU it is impossible to legislate for the deficit of the public sector without determining the savings, consumption and investment decisions of all other sectors of the economy.

It is also entirely impossible in a single currency area for all other economies to maintain government balances if one or more key countries have large current account surpluses, as is presently the case with Germany and others. Other countries must then run current account deficits and to simultaneously maintain a government balance they are faced with two unacceptable alternatives. They must either hugely increase household savings even though incomes are declining; that is, household spending must fall even faster than incomes. Alternatively, businesses must reduce investment to well below the level of its income, which could only lead to a further reduction in competitiveness and a renewed widening of the current account deficit. This is the downward spiral that countries like Greece have already entered.

The Tory Position

David Cameron did not object to any of this because he is a champion of increased government spending, or a defender of the welfare state. Nor has his government shown any appreciation of the fact that reduced government spending will also reduce the incomes of other sectors of the economy.

Instead, his objection was to the threat to the City’s ability to siphon off funds from other businesses in Europe. He may not have been successful even in that limited aim. Ed Miliband writing in the Evening Standard argued that Cameron was ‘a prisoner of the Tory Right’ and had isolated himself and Britain from the continuing evolution of policy in Europe.

While willing the other EU national leaders to act decisively to halt the crisis, Cameron himself acted to prevent that happening. Defending the sectional interest of the City and relying on some of the most backward political forces in Britain, Cameron has finally crossed a line that even Thatcher only threatened to do. There will be no benefit to the British economy from this decision and the consequences could prove extremely negative. If, for example, overseas multinationals decide they want a base in the EU, will they choose semi-detached Britain or one of the other 26 countries who continue to have a common regulatory regime? If the British economy suffers as a result, it should be remembered this was done to benefit the City of London and to appease the Tory Eurosceptics and Union Jack-wavers.