Spain and the IMF: Round the Bend or Out of the Woods?

“Spain has turned the corner”. With this stark statement the IMF opened it’s annual Article IV consultation report for 2014. Naturally the statement rankled, with this author among others, because at first sight it seems to be saying something which on closer reading of the report you find it isn’t. At best it’s misleading, possibly from a PR point of view intentionally so, but then Article IV reports are supposed to be more sober, measured assessments. One Spanish journalist summed up the surprise many felt in the following tweet.

Dear IMF,
You can’t say “Spain has turned the corner” and “the unemployment remains unacceptably high” in the same paper
It’s silly
Yours,
C

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Multipliers and adding up

Bank for International Settlements 84th Annual Report, page 11 –

Second, as growing evidence suggests, balance sheet recessions are less responsive to traditional demand management measures (Chapter V). One reason is that banks need to repair their balance sheets. As long as asset quality is poor and capital meagre, banks will tend to restrict overall credit supply and, more importantly, misallocate it. As they lick their wounds, they will naturally retrench. But they will keep on lending to derelict borrowers (to avoid recognising losses) while cutting back on credit or making it dearer for those in better shape. A second, even more important, reason is that overly indebted agents will wish to pay down debt and save more. Give them an additional unit of income, as fiscal policy would do, and they will save it, not spend it. Encourage them to borrow more by reducing interest rates, as monetary policy would do, and they will refuse to oblige.

Note the contradictory logic of the two reasons. The first says that banks will only lend to bad borrowers and willing good borrowers can’t get credit. The second says people getting extra income from fiscal or monetary stimulus will only use it to  pay down debt, reducing demand. But what about those good borrowers who can’t get credit due to the first reason? And what about those people who are paying down debt, thus helping banks get into better shape and thus, er, lend?

What starts out as an argument for weak multipliers doesn’t add up, and it’s not made any easier to follow by the apparent decision not to directly address their main critic on this point, Paul Krugman.

You still don’t have to have Juncker.

Stefan Kornelius in the Süddeutsche Zeitung says that it’s a myth that the EU has always managed to bring off major reforms, once it really came under pressure. Instead, whenever it came under pressure, it managed to do something dramatic – but it was usually wrong.

Es gehört zu den Mythen europäischer Politik, dass die Gemeinschaft immer dann zu großen Reformen in der Lage war, wenn sie unter enormem Druck stand. Dieser Mythos wurde zumindest in den vergangenen Jahren gründlich widerlegt. Richtig ist indes, dass es die Gemeinschaft immer wieder schaffte, an den großen Wegmarken ihrer Geschichte die falsche Richtung einzuschlagen…

Kornelius makes the excellent point that any fool can announce they want “more Europe”, and most of them have done. But, as he says, the longer this goes on, the more people vote against it. The great unasked question is what “more Europe” would do. This has been true for years, indeed decades. What would its leaders do with the new powers granted them? Isn’t the content of politics interesting, especially to the citizens who are likely to be its targets?

Instead of any meaningful discussion about what this Europe is going to do, though, we get an intense fight over nominations. The emotional energy of politics is assigned to the struggle between the institutions and the competition between individuals. This leaves nothing for the struggle between ideas or the competition between interests as expressed by the popular vote. But it’s always the way – at the crude level, any dispute in the EU is reduced to virtuous Franco-Germans versus bad Europeans/Eurosceptics, while at a finer level of resolution, any dispute is expressed as a conflict among the institutions.

In fact, it is a necessary condition of the fight between the institutions that it must change nothing in terms of policy. And, in the end, perhaps it will also change nothing in terms of personnel. We seem bound to get austerity and Juncker, even if the Bild Zeitung has noticed his Blair-like speaker’s earnings. We are offered the choice between getting them by virtue of the Council or by virtue of the Parliament. This is, I think, insufficient.

You voted for it, in short.

So this is a thing. It must be – it’s in the New York Times Magazine and the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the same weekend.

Dean Baker is rough on It’s Official: the Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave. To be fair, the NYT article actually does make the point that flat-to-falling wages, the invention of student debt, and crazy-high house prices have been pushing back the age of economic independence. It’s not just some sort of moral degeneracy that makes them live at home.

And it makes the important point that this has been going on for some time. We’re not living through the hangover after the party; for the majority, there was no party, as recovering Lib Dem economic advisor Giles Wilkes points out.

Of course, Baker could point at tens to hundreds of articles of pure whining and moralising about why today’s kids just won’t get on their bikes. He would be right, too. Very importantly, he could point to many of them that long predated the crash. I certainly remember this as a subject of intensely tiresome and self satisfied public whining for my parents’ generation, and as a subject of real trouble for my contemporaries. Hey, Euromoney Institutional Investor offered me a job on £14k in central London in 2005. And Baker has the great advantage that he names the guilty men.

But there is no real dispute between Baker and the NYT writer, I think. Contrast this effort from the SZ, in which we are told that this is a phenomenon well known and laughed at in Italy (!), and that it has gone up in Europe since 2007. Well, gee, how could it happen? Perhaps the policies that led to this have something in common with the casual contempt the crack at Italians betrays.

Further, this is special:

Manchen Kindern sind Zusatzkosten, die sie verursachen, nicht bewusst – und das in einer Phase, in der Eltern für ihre Altersvorsorge arbeiten.

Ah, the problem is that if the economic order you voted for means your kids move back in with you, that might cost you money you’re putting into your HSH Nordbank ship-rental fund because of the pension reform you voted for them to have and the tax cut you voted for you to have. Clearly the debate, even at this level, is a notch more honest in the US than in Germany.

World Cup thread

EU news is as depressing as it could possibly be. Let’s watch football.

I always regret the World Cup group stage once it’s over. It’s the bit that actually expresses the whole “worldwide festival of football” element, before the knockout phase starts to home in on the ever narrower pinnacle of a mountain of failure.

This year I managed to watch all the England games, Spain-Netherlands, Germany-Portugal, Uruguay-Costa Rica, Brazil-Mexico, France-Honduras, France-Switzerland, Germany-Ghana, Colombia-Greece, and I apparently fell asleep watching Australia-Chile. So I guess I worked on that.

What stuck out? Goals. Lots of goals. Direct play is back. So is just a bit of the rough stuff. It’s not as if it hasn’t been technical, though. England were totally weird. And have there been upsets. It’s probably been more fun so far than any World Cup I remember, with the possible rival of 1998 when people claimed I looked like my exact contemporary Michael Owen. But let’s stick to the footy.

This piece is really meant to be just here to open a World Cup thread, so I’ll stop.

Really.

So, the “mini-summit” of Socialist heads of state or government has happened, and it says….Juncker! Their conditions for this are apparently:

  • more time for “reforms”
  • this time is conditional on “reforms”
  • no change to the Stability Pact

Parturiunt montes, nascitur riduculus mus. The Eurozone No Turning Back group. Everyone’s a member. Stephan-Andreas Casdorff makes some excellent points, notably that Germany’s SPD was only able to implement its now-famous Agenda 2010 because it burst the stability pact criteria to finance it, that the German conservatives, far from publicising Juncker, named David McAllister “national spitzenkandidat”, and that the main aim of the nine Socialists seems to be imposing Juncker on Merkel because it’s a win of sorts.

And the latest speculation on personnel politics? Hopelessly failed French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for Council President, and Emma Bonino – famous for fake-fainting when anyone suggested less subsidy for Italian fishermen – as foreign minister. Catherine Ashton is probably the only EU official at the moment who can claim to have achieved anything, but clearly she must go to make room for this trawl of the discredited and the mediocre.

Don’t let them do it to you: Juncker edition

One of the things that annoyed me about the rush to Juncker, as it were, can be summed up by this chart from the European Parliament in the UK.

It’s still clear that the EPP is the biggest party, but it’s very far from a majority, and even if you accept the decision by Hannes Swoboda to support Juncker unconditionally…well, look at all the Europeans who were misguided enough to vote for something other than the two Respectable Parties. There are a lot. Personally, I score the Greens/EFA as a generally pro-Eurosystem (in every sense) group – I remember Joschka Fischer even if they don’t want to any more. Also, I score the ECR as such, but I’m less sure about that.

But even leaving them out, I get 151 MEPs who are specifically elected, whether from the right or the left or somewhere else, to oppose things carrying on as before. They are the third biggest party. They represent millions of Europeans. They are the 25% or so who have withdrawn consent from the European project. Does anyone really seriously imagine that the elections of 2014 transmit the message “That was great; let’s have some more of it”?

Further, the coalition possibilities are hugely diverse. The numbers work for several options, and the possibility of ECR refusing to play increases them. But the election-night interpretation of Spitzenkandidaten was specifically intended to silence this diversity of voices by taking the S&D MEPs out of the game. It is probably fair to say that nobody who voted for a party of the Left was hoping to get a conservative apostle of austerity and defender of tax havens, so the democratic status of this manoeuvre is deeply questionable.

After all, on the night, the group leaders like Swoboda specifically no longer represented the newly elected Parliament. We are still, per the chart, talking in terms of “projections” weeks later. The make-up of the new groups is up in the air, they need to elect their leaders, so by what right did the outgoing S&D leader throw the votes of European social democracy down the chute? Rayman kojast, as they used to say in Iran.

And as Daniel Gros points out, the S&D parties narrowly won the European popular vote.

What we want here is the freies Spiel der Kräfte, as the Germans say at these moments, the free play of forces. If the S&D and some combination of the Greens, the radical Left, and the Liberals could put together a majority, why not? Let them try. It will do us all the world of good. But the problem is that precisely this is what all sorts of people have been trying to prevent. Schulz mustn’t form a coalition, and must be stopped from even being Juncker’s deputy, so Germany gets to replace Olli Rehn.

The degree to which the EU institutions function as a way of restraining, filtering, and preventing democracy has rarely been so clear. The original idea of having Spitzenkandidaten itself is being blamed by German government briefers on Schulz, as a socialist plot to weaken Merkel. If the Parliament wants to add to its power as against the Commission or the Council, it can try, but under one unspoken condition: that nothing changes beyond that. It’s The Leopard in reverse: everything can change, so long as everything goes on as before.

It’s always the same – criticism is batted away as being “Eurosceptic” and hence probably fascist, and blamed on the British, who are uniquely evil. (Even when Angela Merkel threatens to veto Juncker.) It’s always the same old gang, too. You know who I mean. Can’t we have a language in which criticism is acceptable?

Fortunately, someone made a fuss. As a result, Van Rompuy is now off carrying out soundings with all involved. Interestingly, his role as President of the Council is suddenly rather like a head of state’s during a coalition crisis. However, the lesson in this post is that there was no option on the ballot that wouldn’t have given us Juncker. It used to be the Eurosceptics who had the No Turning Back group; now it’s the EU, and we’re all in it.

Olli Rehn: a tribute

Olli Rehn’s last ECOFIN press conference has just finished. AFOE would like to take this momentous occasion as an opportunity to salute Rehn’s towering achievements, and Matthew Yglesias passes on exactly what we need.

Screen_Shot_2014-06-13_at_11.50.26_AM

Yes, we know he was Enlargement Commissioner. But seriously folks, Rehn took office as Commissioner for EMU on the 9th of February 2010. If you were to overlay those two charts, the lines would diverge essentially right then.

And, desperately, he thinks he’s done a brilliant job:

It’s only topped by the astonishing fact that some Iraq War advocates not only continue to claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but claim that the weapons are still present to this day.