Is European fiscal policy shifting up a gear?

Economic opinion

The worsening economic climate is leading to a reversal of monetary policy. It is also noticeable that ECB President Draghi and his successor Lagarde are seeking the help of fiscal policy to stimulate the economy. Fiscal stimulus in the eurozone is a story of needing to, being able to, and wanting to do it. In the absence of a significant European budget, any fiscal stimulus must be channelled through the Member States. Room for manoeuvre varies greatly from country to country, as do political preferences. Italy wants to go fast but has hardly any room. However, flexible application of the European budgetary framework will leave as much room for manoeuvre as possible. Whether or not European fiscal policy will shift up a gear and Draghi and Lagarde’s call will be answered sufficiently quickly, however, will depend, above all, on how quickly Germany sets aside its reluctance, both internally and at the European level, to stimulate via the budget.

Has monetary policy been played out?

The deteriorating economy brings the role of economic policy to the fore. Central bankers have quickly made it clear that they are ready to support the economy. By lowering interest rates, the Fed put its money where its mouth is. Over the summer, ECB president Draghi took every opportunity to make it clear that the ECB is also ready. But his story sounded more nuanced. In the same breath, he pointed out the role of fiscal policy in the event of a sharper economic downturn. Christine Lagarde, his successor, joined in the call for more policy coordination.

The question does indeed arise as to whether even looser monetary policy in the eurozone would be more effective. Unlike the Fed, the ECB has not been able to raise interest rates in recent years. They are therefore still at all-time lows. Does a further cut make sense? Monetary policy is sometimes compared to a rope. You can use it to slow down a cart that drives too fast, but trying to push a stationary cart with it is useless. A central bank can use interest rate increases to slow down economic growth and inflation, but it is less certain whether it can do the opposite through interest rate reductions. The impact of unconventional monetary policy on inflation also remains uncertain. For the time being, inflation is not accelerating in the eurozone. There is no doubt that central bankers have a strong belief in the power of monetary policy. However, their call for fiscal policy may signal some justified doubts about it.

Fiscal stimulus not evident either

But there are also doubts about the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus. It often arrives too late, has the wrong focus and is not reduced quickly enough. It is quite clear that public finances can support economic growth in the event of a cyclical downturn by means of the so-called automatic stabilisers. Rising unemployment expenditure and lower-than-expected income taxes lead to a budget deficit. By not offsetting this with tax increases or savings in other public spending, but by financing it with debt, the government supports demand in the economy.

The government can try to boost demand even more by further increasing spending or reducing taxes. There is more doubt about the effectiveness of this. A tax cut can be implemented relatively quickly, but it only supports demand if it is effectively spent by the taxpayer on more consumption or investment. The government has more direct control over demand when it increases its own spending. But setting up a sensible spending package usually takes time, so the impact is likely to come too late.

Fiscal policy has been discredited by the deficit bias: the tendency to tolerate public deficits and not reduce debt even during economically favourable times. Once a recession is over, it is often politically difficult to reduce the additional expenditure. Public finances then deteriorate structurally. The government’s use of savings even threatens to hamper private investment (crowding out) and limit economic growth potential. If private demand becomes too strong, cyclical stabilisation consists of curbing demand.

A story of needing to, being able to and wanting to

In order to strengthen the economic underpinnings of fiscal policy, European fiscal rules require  consistency with economic forecasts made by an independent predictor. At the end of June, the European Fiscal Board (EFB) recommended a neutral fiscal policy for the euro area as a whole by 2020, albeit with appropriate country differentiation. This recommendation was based on an assumption that economic growth would strengthen again in 2020. This prospect became more uncertain during the summer months. It may well be that the expected economic strengthening will not be achieved without a push by fiscal policy. This illustrates that determining the need for fiscal stimulus is often not obvious. But is a stimulus possible at all?

The eurozone’s fiscal clout is limited anyway. In the absence of a significant budget at the level of the currency union, fiscal impulses must come from the Member States. The “appropriate country differentiation” in the EFB recommendation refers to the differences in public debt between countries (Figure 1). These reflect how they have dealt with the deficit bias in the past. Today, they imply large differences in budgetary margins between countries.

Figure 1 - General government gross debt (% of GDP)

Source: KBC Economics based on Eurostat

In many cases, it is countries with little budgetary room for manoeuvre, such as Italy, that are eager to relax their budgetary policies. This eagerness is in danger of quickly bringing them into conflict with European budgetary rules. By applying these flexibly, the outgoing European Commission (EC) has avoided excessive confrontations with governments in recent years. Immediately after her appointment as the new President of the EC, Ursula von der Leyen made it clear that she would continue to apply this flexibility to the maximum extent possible. In the meantime, the ECB’s looser monetary policy will help prevent financial markets from penalising too much flexibility. A lack of flexibility will therefore probably not prevent a positive response to the question of Draghi and Lagarde.

Nevertheless, there can only be real relief for the economy from stimulus in a large economy with significant budgetary room for manoeuvre. All eyes are therefore on Germany. Germany has plenty of room for manoeuvre in the budget, but a strong political and legal aversion to deficits. Will this change, and if so, how soon will it happen? The fact that the slowdown in growth in the eurozone is to a large extent the result of a recession in the German manufacturing industry can speed things up. There is little doubt that the German economy needs more investment, including from the government. It is faced with a structural demand deficit - the flipside of the very large external surplus. This is now affecting the economy in a cyclical way, on top of the structural adjustment problems in the industrial sector. These are economic arguments that may lead German politicians to new insights. The speed of this process is difficult to predict. But it is certain that the progress of these insights will determine the eventual answer to Draghi and Lagarde’s question... and whether it will come soon enough.

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