Friday, November 28, 2014

Making Europe Work

PARIS – Some economists believe that this summer could mark the moment when some of the eurozone’s peripheral members may begin to be forced out; others think that such a scenario is inconceivable. All agree that, at least in the short term, a eurozone breakup would be disastrous for jobs and growth.

But, because the outcome is unknowable, and depends on politics as much as on economics, let us leave that frightening prospect to one side and look instead at what we know about the underlying performance of the European Union economy. In short, how competitive is Europe in the summer of 2012?

If we compare the EU-15 (the membership before the enlargements of 2004 and 2007) with the US, the most obvious point is that GDP per capita in Europe is almost 25% lower, a difference of around $11,000 a year. Furthermore, per capita EU productivity, which had been converging on the US level for 20 years up to 1995, when Europe was only about 5% below the US, lost ten percentage points in relative terms in the decade preceding the eurozone crisis. Europe was unable to match America’s significant productivity boost from the information-technology revolution.

But Europe managed to hold its share of global exports during that period more effectively than did the US. European companies have been more successful, on average, at maintaining their share of emerging-market demand than have US companies.

Moreover, European job creation has not been as bad as many think. An analysis by McKinsey & Company of new jobs in the US and the EU from 1995 to 2008 suggests that, while the US created 20 million new jobs, 19 million of them were attributable to population growth. The EU-15 created about 24 million new jobs during the same period, with only nine million due to rising population.

This job creation was not evenly spread across Europe, but it happened. That means that the EU now has successful employment models that can be emulated.

There is also solid evidence that Europe’s big companies have been competing relatively well globally. The number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the EU has grown over the last decade, while the number of those based in the US has fallen. Moreover, big European companies’ profits have grown 50% more rapidly than those of their American counterparts.

Few deny the need for fiscal consolidation in many EU countries, especially in the south (and including France). But fiscal adjustment must be accompanied by structural reform. It is clear that the labor-market reforms undertaken by Germany a decade ago, painful as they were, have put the German economy in a far stronger position to compete globally. Similar reforms are urgently needed in countries like Italy and Spain.

Service-sector reform is vital as well. Manufacturing productivity per hour in Europe compares quite well with the US, but Europeans work significantly fewer hours per year, which explains the annual per capita difference. But European countries lag badly in services, where restrictive practices, protectionism, and inefficiency hold them back.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti seem to understand these points, but the reform programs that they have unveiled are not adequate to the challenge. Although Italian employers have dismissed the proposed employment-law reform as far too modest, Monti’s government has retreated in the face of trade-union opposition and protests from assorted interest groups (like taxi drivers) eager to defend their privileges.

Governments are inhibited by the knowledge that labor-market reform may well result in a short-term increase in unemployment (and thus further fiscal deterioration), because employers will find it cheaper to fire personnel. The hope is that greater flexibility would also translate into a greater willingness to hire in an economic upturn.

For EU politicians, however, the long term will be reached only after a series of short-term electoral challenges, so pro-reform governments may well not survive to reap the benefits. As Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker remarked, all EU governments know what must be done; what they don’t know is how to get re-elected once they have done it.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?

Countries like Germany are adamantly opposed to a fiscal union, with a central EU budget for responding to asymmetric shocks, because they would be the chief contributors. But a variant that might elicit greater support would link fiscal support to labor-market reform. If Italy or Spain introduced changes that led to a short-term increase in joblessness, the fiscal costs would be met from a central EU budget to ease the pain. This “investment” by wealthier countries should pay off if it leads to more flexible labor markets and higher productivity in the recipient countries.

Another proposal is a central-budget subsidy to reduce employment taxes in the EU’s most economically challenged countries. The logic is that a country like Greece needs devaluation to enhance its competitiveness, but that leaving the euro would pose major problems. The alternative would be to cut nominal wages (“internal” devaluation), which is hard to do (though it has been achieved in Latvia and Ireland).

Reducing taxes on labor, perhaps for a defined period, would have a similar effect. That would be costly for governments in the short term, though an increase in output and employment might well justify the “tax expenditure” involved; here, too, an EU subsidy might be a worthwhile investment.

If Europe wants to revive sustainable growth and high employment, it must replicate what has worked in those countries that have performed successfully. Doing so will cost money. Governments must be prepared to persuade their electorates that it would be money well spent.

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    1. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

      CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

      Eurozone NGDP growth is below 2%, which acts as a ceiling on real growth. What the eurozone needs today is a sustained 5% inflation and a 5% inflation expectation. This will require a public inflation target of 5% by the ECB, which will never happen.

    2. CommentedRichard Dolan

      "If Europe wants to revive sustainable growth and high employment, it must replicate what has worked in those countries that have performed successfully."

      Amen. Talk of fiscal union as a European cure-all misses that essential point: the EU's problems have come to a head in the fiscal meltdown across the Eurozone, but the basic problems are not themselves fiscal in nature or amenable to a fiscal solution. Instead, the problems are rooted in economic fundamentals -- slow-to-no growth, declining relative productivity, labor market regidities, etc. -- impacting (mostly) the weaker EU members. In that sense, 'fiscal union' is a term that hides the key issues: the pre-conditions that the various EU players are insisting on, or refusing to consider, in order to move forward towards such a 'union.' For the Germans, 'fiscal union' requires the southern EU tier to become more like Germany. Mr. Davies' point, quoted above, captures that idea. Many of the other Eurozone members have a decidedly different idea about what 'union' would entail.

      It's hard to see that project turning out well. It requires accepting the related ideas that the residents of Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Greece, for example, see themselves first as "Europeans" and only secondarily as German, Italian, Spanish, French and Greek; and that the cultural, linguistic and historical factors that shaped the individual countries into very different societies are now, almost magically, less significant than the abstract designs of the Eurocrats. Perhaps, but a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.

      A 'union' based on the idea that, after the marriage, one of the partners will be able to remake the other into a 'new man' is a very old hope that experience has too often shown to be a fool's errand. But that's what talk about 'fiscal union' comes down to.

        CommentedZsolt Hermann

        I fully agree with you.
        The basic problems are much deeper, the main problem that the socio-economic system the world is stubbornly pushing on has exhausted itself and became unsustainable, moreover self consuming.
        It is impossible to continue with an unnatural, constant quantitative growth model in a closed, global, and finite natural system.
        Moreover even when people talk about union, integration they all imagine it individually, based on their own subjective self calculations. Again in a global, integral, interdependent system that is impossible, any integration, union has to take the benefit of the whole as priority ahead of self benefit.
        The whole crisis and the desperate helplessness comes down to our inability or unwillingness to understand the system we exist in, to understand our own nature, and how we need to adapt to the system. The natural system around us is vast and is based on unbending rules, it is not going to change. The only element that can change and has to change is ourselves.
        If we do not we are not fitting to the evolutionary process and have no place in the future.

    3. CommentedAvraam Dectis

      So, you are suggesting that you need a fiscal union that does not force any country to shoulder the debts of another?

      This is impossible, but you can achieve the same effect through a different mechanism.

      That mechanism is CBD( Central Bank Dividends ) and it is tailor made for this sort of imminent crisis.

      EC starts with the acknowledgement that the true owners of a Central Bank are the citizens and then proceeds to the conclusion that ownership is an asset upon which a dividend can be paid.

      For example, if the ECB declared a 10,000 euro CBD, the following would occur:

      1) The ECB would open an account for each country in the eurozone and place 10 euros times the number of citizens in that country in the account.

      2) That money could only be drawn upon to pay down debts. Countries that did not need the money for debt would be entitled to whatever highest percentage of the fund any one country drew - for fairness purposes.

      3) If inflation rose, access to the fund could be terminated.

      In Greece's case, this would buy a couple of years freedom from debt payments and time to restructure.

      This mechanism not only does not burden the solvent countries, it gives them a benefit equal on a per capita basis to that received by the insolvent. They do not even have to spend the money if they do not want to, they can do what China does and buy US bonds or save it for another use. This makes the solution politically possible.

      CBD can be tailored to any imminent crisis that involves an economy that is highly indebted, recessionary and experiencing low inflation.

      CBD is the mechanism that the eurozone needs, not QE and ESM.

      Thank you.

      Avraam J. Dectis

        CommentedAvraam Dectis

        A shame I cannot edit my previous comment.

        Corrections are:

        1) Fourth paragraph should start : "ECB starts with the"

        2) 6th patagraph, "and place 10,000 euros times the number of citizens"

        Let me add that if you object to the concept of a dividend that effectively goes to the citizens as monetization or moral hazard, keep in mind that if inflation is kept low those arguments are pointless and in fact the citizen should get something because he is suffering because the people he put his trust upon have failed in the jobs.