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The Worst and the Best of Austerity

BRUSSELS – In June, it was Greece. In August, it was France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In September, it was Greece again – and Spain. In November, France took another turn, before Italy again in December, this time in a major way. Every month, despite an ever-darker outlook for economic growth, countries announce new spending cuts and tax hikes in the hope of restoring confidence in the bond markets. Only Germany stands out, having recently announced a tax cut, albeit a modest one.

In other words, while all indicators point to a severe economic downturn in Europe, the eurozone’s current interest-rate spreads are provoking a shift to austerity. It looks like a no-brainer: accelerated budget cuts are preferable to a lethal interest-rate surge on public debt, even if the cuts increase the risk of recession. But there are caveats.

First, while indiscriminate austerity may be the only option for those eurozone countries that no longer have access to capital markets, others have more choice of policy options. Consolidation is required, but governments are responsible for its speed and its design.

Second, a sound fiscal strategy requires establishing, on the basis of prudent economic assumptions, an ambitious budgetary target for the medium term, determining what mix of taxation and expenditure cuts are required in order to achieve it, and then sticking to the plan throughout economic fluctuations. This allows the so-called “automatic stabilizers” – lower receipts in a slowdown, higher in a boom – to come into play, preventing the economy from overheating at the top of the business cycle and providing stimulus at the bottom.