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Economics

France’s cul-de-sac

Over a year ago, in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis, François Hollande celebrated his victory over Nicolas Sarkozy in France’s presidential elections. Hollande became the leader of a country in economic turmoil. In the past year, he has had relatively free rein to carry out his economic agenda, since the Socialist Party he leads has a majority in the French Parliament.

France has a history of grandiose government spending, even among European countries. Public spending accounts for 57 percent of national output, and public debt accounts for over 90 percent of GDP. While austerity has been the buzzword in the rest of Europe since 2009, resulting in a modest decline in government spending as a percentage of GDP, France is not part of that trend.

The public sector now accounts for almost two-thirds of all direct economic activity, and more if indirect activity is counted. This large and growing dependence on government is disastrous because it is funded by ever higher taxes. These high taxes drain the private sector (while simultaneously giving the public sector an aura of impotence) and deficit spending obliges future generations of French citizens to pay off the largesse of today’s government.

Deep within the French psyche is the idea that cuts to the gargantuan public sector would cause undue harm to everyone. This inability to envision a French economy where the private sector picks up the slack when fewer public services are provided has reinforced the reluctance of politicians, and in particular, François Hollande, to use austerity measures to overcome the crisis. Instead, the current solution is to increase government spending and create more jobs in the public sector. For this reason, Hollande’s administration has pledged to increase the minimum wage for all employees, public and private, and create 60,000 new public teaching jobs.

In addition to the present increases in public expenditures, Hollande has committed to future increases in public spending. His decision to roll back Sarkozy’s initiative to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 obliges taxpayers not only to support the burgeoning ranks of public employees “working” today, but the growing number of public retirees supported by generous social security payments.

In a bid to combat rising interest rates on its bonds, the French government has recently commenced a campaign to raise taxes to fund the country’s ballooning expenditures. Indeed, one of Hollande’s primary electoral promises was a top tax rate of 75 percent on the so-called riche (income earners above 1 million euros).

France has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the European Union, exceeding even the famous high rates of Sweden. While the European Union’s average tax rate has been decreasing (from about 50 percent in 2005 to about 44 percent in 2012), France’s tax rate has remained constantly high (over 65 percent from 2005 to 2012).

In addition to high tax rates, French businesses are faced with the highest social charges in the European Union, as well as oppressive government regulation. These factors make for an unattractive business environment. Recently several large companies closed their doors rather than deal with the difficult business conditions, resulting in thousands losing their jobs. New companies are slow to appear in such a climate.

In response to the threat of higher French taxes, British Prime Minister David Cameron, offered to “roll out the red carpet” for any high-income earning Frenchmen who wanted to avoid paying French taxes. Of course, we would be remiss to think that Cameron was motivated by anything other than to attract tax dollars into his own strained coffers. The result, however, was tax competition between states.

Before the advent of the European Monetary Union, highly indebted countries sought to cure their fiscal woes through inflationary policies. France removed this option from the table when it adopted the euro. Indeed, as Philipp Bagus demonstrates in his book The Tragedy of the Euro, it was the French who aggressively pushed for monetary integration within Europe. They must now adhere to the results of this decision.

The monetary union functions somewhat as a modern gold standard. Just as gold once kept states from running prolonged deficits, today the loss of an independent monetary policy constrains European member states in a similar way.

With no recourse to an inflationary monetary policy, the French government is at the mercy of the bond market. As lenders worry about the French government’s ability to repay their debts, now and in the future, interest rates will rise (as they have already). The French government will have to rein in its deficit spending either through spending cuts or tax increases as the cost of borrowing goes up. The private sector is already a heavily burdened minority, and given the current exodus of French companies and entrepreneurs to other countries, any further taxes would be coming from an already shrinking tax-paying base.

Like many of his counterparts, François Hollande realizes that the beleaguered French economy needs change. What he must do is focus on the areas that he can change. He must decrease public spending and lower taxes in order to increase employment. In addition, the private sector must be allowed to heal and recover, instead of treating it as a goose to be plucked. This is the only way the French government can continue to function, and more importantly, the only way to get France out of its economic cul-de-sac.

This article was co-authored with  and previously published at Mises.org.

Economics

Europe’s voters say ‘No’ to economic reality

“Europe fights back against austerity” was how The Daily Telegraph headlined its weekend election coverage.

Anti-austerity movements are gathering pace across Europe following political earthquakes in France and Greece. A total of 12 European governments have now been dismissed in three years.

As the European welfare state is officially in its death-throes none of us should be surprised if political strife gets cranked up to eleven. I firmly expect that we will see much more of this in the future. While I can understand the anger of the electorate and sympathize with the sense of desperation and foreboding, I can, however, not consider the electoral choices of the weekend particularly enlightened, and I do not think that they reflect a coherent, let alone intelligent strategy as the Daily Telegraph headline seems to imply. If those who ‘won’ the election deliver on their promises, economic disintegration will only accelerate. What is being offered in terms of ‘solutions’ is a dangerous assortment of economic poisons, more suitable to describe the European disease than provide a recipe for stronger growth.

Recovery through early retirement and infrastructure spending? – C’mon. Nobody can take that seriously.

But it seems that just because this heap of economic stupidity can neatly be swept under the wide tent of ‘anti-austerity’, the commentariat seems somehow willing to believe in the wisdom of the crowds and look for some deeper insights here.

I guess the reason for this is that the economic ideologies that are now being strenuously interpreted into the election results rhyme with the economic prejudices of most commentators. They, too, believe that state bankruptcy is best to be ignored or not to be taken too seriously so that we can spend our way out of this mess. For a long time media pundits have treated us to the perceived wisdom that economic growth can only come from the actions of the government. Only devaluation through euro-exit, inflation through more money printing and more government deficit-spending, preferably by the still credit-worthy Germans and then fiscally-transferred to the maxed-out Greeks, can revive the economy because only this can lift aggregate demand, the magic cure-all of economic problems.

What is lost on these commentators is that the European mess is nothing but the inevitable result of government-stimulated aggregate demand.  Easy money funded the Spanish and Irish real estate booms and bankrupted their banks and by extension their governments. Easy money allowed Greece’s political class to go on a borrowing binge that has now bankrupted the country and lured large parts of the population into zero-productivity, soon-to-be-eliminated public sector jobs.

Do you still want the state to ‘stimulate’ the economy? – Be careful what you wish for.

The real culprit of high youth unemployment in Spain and Italy is not ‘austerity’, which hasn’t even started there, but a bizarrely overregulated and sclerotic labour market in which it is almost impossible for firms of a certain size to fire people. The incentives are thus stacked massively against hiring. Yet, in France one of Hollande’s election promises is not to deregulate the labour market. If I were unemployed in France I would not be counting my chances of getting a job over the next five years.

In France the state runs more than half the economy, yet Hollande promises not to privatize state-run industry. Where is the wisdom in that?

Yet, the statists and socialists are delighted. Paul Krugman, who never saw a debt crisis you could not borrow and spend your way out of, rejoices at such display of economic genius. We are all Keynesians now! Listening to Krugman you would think Greek and French voters were not using the ballot to cling desperately to some remnants of the welfare state but were in fact positively advertising the wisdom of government stimulus and the mystical ‘multiplier’.

Some of the commentators tried to argue that what happened over the weekend was also some kind of anti-establishment vote, a verdict against centralisation and the dominance of the deservedly despised bureaucratic elite in Brussels.

Nice try, but I think that that is rubbish.

This was not an anti-establishment vote at all. It was not a vote for change but a desperate vote for the status quo. Of course, the old elite deserved the sack but they were largely booted out not because people got tired of the old policies but because the leadership now finally admitted that they could no longer deliver on the old promises.

The established parties lost because they could not continue upholding the false promise that had kept them in office for years or decades, the promise to make the “European model” work. They had to admit that the European welfare state was now bankrupt. Kicking the can down the road is increasingly not an option as the end of the road is now in sight.

And the election winners were those who had the chutzpah to maintain that drastic belt-tightening and painful reform were not required but that the people just had to ‘stick it to the man’, who is Angela Merkel and sits in Berlin. The tactic is straightforward. Shoot the messenger!

In France that meant voting for a charisma-free Socialist bureaucrat who will revive France with higher taxes, early retirement and a Hoover dam funded by Eurobonds and the ECB. In Greece, the big winner was an ex-Communist firebrand who admires Hugo Chavez, and who has raged against austerity measures and structural reform.

I guess we now know what the electorate is against. “Say no to cuts!” But what is it for? Over in Ireland, the deputy leader of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou MacDonald, had the answer: “A No vote (to the ‘Austerity Treaty’) in Ireland will strengthen those arguing for jobs and growth.”

Well, who could not love a politician who promises jobs and growth? But the relationship between politics and jobs and growth is a tenuous one. Politicians are not savers who fund the creation of a capital stock through saving, and they are not entrepreneurs who put that capital to productive use. Politicians are people who spend other people’s money. In Ireland the budget deficit runs at 13 percent of GDP per annum, which according to Krugman’s logic must be a fantastic recipe for jobs and growth. Let’s just sit back and watch how that economic miracle is going to unfold.

My guess is that many people in Europe still know, or at least instinctively sense, that the promises of jobs and growth through state spending and money printing are hollow. They know that the state is bust and cannot keep spending money it doesn’t have. The policy options are much more limited than the campaign rhetoric indicates. On trend, fiscal consolidation and structural reform will continue, and Germany’s negotiating position will remain strong.

Yet, on the margin this was an indication that Europe, and in particular France, remain in many areas unreformable, and that the pressure on the ECB to sustain the unsustainable with sizable money injections will, if anything, intensify.

In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.

This article was previously published at Paper Money Collapse.

Economics

The official start of the European transfer union

There are basically three scenarios for the future of the European Monetary Union as I argue in my book The Tragedy of the Euro.

First, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) is reformed and enforced with automatic sanctions for countries not complying with its conditions. This requires harsh austerity measures, privatizations, labor market reforms and reduction of living standards in the periphery. The case of Greece shows that this option may just not be viable considering political structures and socialist voters resisting a reduction of the state’s size. Indeed, for 2011 the Greek deficit is expected to be at 9.5% of GDP, far above of the 3% limit established by the SGP and the 7.4% target established by the European Commission.

The second scenario is a break-up of the monetary union. The periphery has no interest in exiting the Eurozone. Periphery governments are benefitting from guarantees by the core and from monetary redistribution. An exit would imply a substantial reduction of living standards in the periphery. But why are core countries not leaving the Euro? While a euro exit would be in the interest of the common population, the political elite and their financiers from the banking sector want to continue the Euro project. As we have seen in the summit on the second Greek bailout, German Chancellor Merkel not only defied the “no-bailout clause” of the Maastricht Treaty but also a resolution of the German parliament against purchasing commonly-guaranteed bonds from February 2011. This leads us to the third scenario, which we are approaching fast: a transfer union and a European superstate. The EU summit of Thursday, 21st of July 2011 marks a big step in this direction.

The Greek government will get an additional €109 bn. bailout loan until 2014. Maturities for Greek bonds from the first bailout were raised from 7.5 to 15 years (originally it was 3 years). Interest rates were reduced from 4.2 % (originally at 5.2 %) to 3.5 %. Likewise, interest rates on loans to Portugal and Ireland were reduced.

The day brought also another bailout of banks. Banks, insurance companies and other private investors can swap their old Greek government bonds against new ones with a longer maturity. Joseph Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank, estimates write-downs for banks around 21%. Politicians sell the  so-called “participation of private investors” in the bailout as a great success. However, it is just another bailout for the banking system, limiting losses to 21% and putting taxpayers’ money on the hook. Old bonds are swapped into new bonds that are guaranteed by the EFSF and such by European taxpayers. Without the second bailout the Greek government would have had to default. Banks would have had to take much higher losses in a restructuring. Estimates of losses range between 50-70%. After the swap, banks are effectively protected. The financial industry, the governments’ main financier, can be very happy about this covert bailout.

The most important consequence of 21st of July was the official establishment of a transfer union by granting more powers to the EFSF (the European bailout fund). In the Eurozone, there have always been transfers through monetary redistribution: The ECB accepts bonds from the periphery as collateral thereby monetizing deficits indirectly. Last year, the ECB even started to buy government bonds from the periphery outright, spreading the burden of the bailout to all users of the currency. Yet, from now on, direct purchases by the ECB may become unnecessary. The burden of the bailouts will be more concentrated. Not all currency users will pay in form of a dilution of the Euro but rather taxpayers in countries that effectively guarantee the EFSF.

The EFSF now can give credit lines to countries that are expected to have financing problems. In addition, the EFSF may purchase government bonds on the secondary market. The role of the ECB is thereby partially taken over by the EFSF.

The possibility of financing through the EFSF reduces the pressure for countries to eliminate deficits and reduce government debts. Why introduce harsh austerity measures, reform labor markets and privatize the public sector if there are loans available from the EFSF at ridiculously low interest rates? If you want to win elections, you should not reform but spend. Only through deficit spending one can maintain the artificially high living standards in the periphery. Indeed, debts are still on the rise. Deficits are huge and far from being eliminated. Most probably, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and soon Spain, Italy and even Belgium will borrow exclusively from the EFSF. To be effective, the size of the EFSF will have to be extended. The main guarantor will be Germany. Considering peripheral funding needs, a report from Bernstein calculates:

As the guarantees of the periphery including Italy are worthless, the guarantee Germany would have to provide rises to €790bn or 32% of GDP.

If France is downgraded, the German share increases to €1.385 trillion — 56% of GDP.

The transfer union implies a transfer of power to the European Commission. We get ever closer to a European superstate. Incentives to reduce deficits will be reduced both in the periphery and in the core. Germans will start to resist cuts in public spending. Why save if the savings flow to the periphery? Instead of reducing German pensions to guarantee Greek pensions, German voters will push for more public spending. To pay for welfare states and transfers, more taxes (maybe a European tax) and money production will become necessary. The centralization of power allows for harmonization of regulations and taxes. Once tax competition ends, there will be a tendency towards ever higher taxes. With the transfers, the power of Brussels will continue to rise. There seems to be only one bold, albeit costly way, to stop the process towards a EUSSR: withdrawal from the transfer union. With an exit from the Euro, Germany could bring down the whole Euro project and save Europe.