After five years, is the era of extreme austerity in southern Europe coming to an end?

The  southern countries of the euro zone, Ireland and France have experienced nearly six years of extreme austerity since the economic crash in North America and Europe at the end of 2008 exposed many weaknesses in these countries’ economies and their banks. At last there has been the beginning of an easing of austerity with the possibility of more measures to come. The reasons for austerity have been the high public debts and deficits of the countries concerned, excessive household and business debt in some of the countries, bank losses and inadequate bank capital ratios compounded by lack of transparency, and average inflation across the euro zone had stuck at close to the ECB target of just under 2%, which meant that the ECB could not within its policy mandate to take very substantive measures to loosen monetary policy, although its interest rates have for a long time been very low and it has provided easy short-term financing to banks.

Herculean efforts have meant that some of the affected countries, notably Italy but also even Greece, have managed to bring their deficit ratios (though not their debt ratios) to levels at which they have a little room for manoeuvre which they are exploiting even if without the approval of the troika (European Commission, ECB and IMF) or the ultimate authority, the German government itself dependent on  German voters. Less optimistically, household debt remains high especially in Spain, Portugal and Ireland and the condition of most banks remains weak, while at least until the new round of ECB supervised stress tests to be published later this, they are also lacking in transparency so there are fears that some banks may be still weaker.

The biggest change is that average inflation in the euro zone has fallen to 0.5% which means that the ECB is having to take action to boost the economy to allow inflation to rise towards its target and to avoid actual deflation. It did so on June 5th, with the first negative interest rate of 0.25% on bank deposits with the ECB and €400bn made available as targeted long term refinancing operations (TLTROs) provide banks onlend the sums at reasonable interest rates to non-financial companies. A further move which is being prepared and debated in the ECB is its purchase of asset backed securities (ASBs) of loan packages to small and medium enterprises. The TLTROs and, if they are introduced, ASBs, are the first real effort to tackle a major distortion in the euro zone, namely that it is far more difficult and more expensive for SMEs in southern Europe to borrow than in Germany or other north European countries.

Another significant development is the declared intention of the chair of the euro zone group of finance ministers, the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, that some countries in the euro zone be given a little more flexibility in regard to the harsh imposition of rigour over the public finances. He made a distinction between countries with still relatively high  deficits which require a full focus on “corrective” measures, ie standard austerity measures to cut spending or raise taxes and those which have brought their deficits below the magic 3% threshold and for which “preventative” measures could be accepted in exchange for more flexibility on fiscal targets. These would be unlikely to include raising the 3% threshold but could imply flexibility of the goals for debt reduction and moving towards surplus. It may be helpful that it is Mr Dijsselbloem is suggesting such flexibility given that his provenance, the Netherlands, is seen as a country like Germany committed to fiscal orthodoxy at home. Nevertheless he and the countries, including most notably Italy which hope to be given more flexibility, will have to marshal their arguments cogently to challenge the severe belief in the merits of fiscal orthodoxy amongst the German establishment and German public opinion and not least, the view of the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble.

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