Monday, February 28, 2011

Eurobond, Public Deficit

The following comments on the last three posts were e-mailed by Professor Michael Ellman, Chair of the Department of Business Studies, University of Amsterdam. They deserve wider circulation and are reproduced below with his permission.

Dear Mario,

I read your paper [merging the two recent posts on the Euro crisis] & blog [the post on Schuldenbremse] and am naturally in sympathy with both. I have a few comments:

(1) at the end of your paper you seem to suggest that a default by a EU member state would mean the end of the Euro or even of the EU itself. But why should it? The default of US municipalities or states has never threatened the dollar or the USA. If Greece defaults this will raise interest rates on bonds issued by other 'suspect' EU members and hit badly banks, insurance companies and pension funds that hold Greek debt. This may require the governments of the countries where these institutions are based to recapitalise them, which will worsen their fiscal position. The rise in interest rates for the other 'suspect' countries will worsen their fiscal position and possibly cause more defaults, which might lead to a change in the membership of the EMU. (As for Greece, if it stayed in the EMU it would have to balance its budget immediately since it could neither issue debt on the capital market nor borrow from the central bank, unless - like the UK in World War II - it forced its own banks and other financial institutions to buy national debt which would undermine their solvency and reduce credit to the private sector, as happens under wartime conditions). Of course, if retail depositors were happy to put their money in institutions mainly holding public debt - like the Soviet/Russian Sberbank or the Japanese postbank - then the situation could be stabilised.

(2) motivation for creating the EMU

It is generally considered that the creation of the EMU was a political bargain between Germany and France in which France agreed to German reunification in exchange for Germany giving up its DM. The point of that, from the French perspective, was to end Germany's dominance of European interest-rate policy. However, it now seems that an important result of the EMU will be to impose German ideas about fiscal policy on the EMU - a development which you and I think harmful. It is ironical that an institutional change designed to end German dominance in European monetary policy seems to be heading in the direction of creating a German dominance of fiscal policy.

(3) debt as a "burden"

Naturally John is right that debt interest is a transfer payment. But transfer payments require taxes to pay them. To say that rising debt payments are not a burden is analogous to saying that rising pension payments are not a burden. Rising interest payments on debt are only not a burden if they are of such a magnitude that they do not have negative economic effects (growth of informal sector, emigration, reduction of economic growth). The actual effects are likely to vary from country to country depending on growth rates, employment levels, economic institutions, tax levels, fiscal situation, etc. Try explaining that taxes have no economic effects to Irish ministers under pressure to increase their corporate tax rates.

(4) balanced budgets

There is another aspect to this - the demand for public debt. If states do not continuously issue new debt, where will financial institutions invest the "risk-free" tranche of their investments? To issue too little public debt is to risk a bubble in private sector assets.

(5) EU solidarity

You are quite right to stress that some much discussed possibilities are political non-starters because of a lack of EU solidarity. Here in the Netherlands (which was a gold bloc country in the 1930s) the main aim of economic policy is to bring down the deficit by expenditure cuts (and tax increases) and to bring back the debt level to the 60% level. Support for fiscal transfers to sinners is conspicuous by its absence. Support for EU integration, both among the public and the political elite, has declined markedly in recent years, partly for this reason. Despite everything the Dutch economy is doing reasonably well, with relatively low and declining unemployment. But this is entirely a result of external factors - growth in Germany and elsewhere in the world. Small foreign-trade dependent countries have their level of economic activity largely determined externally. Fiscal orthodoxy enables them to have relatively low interest rates with favourable economic effects.

Best wishes, Michael

Monday, February 14, 2011

Schuldenbremse [debt brake] by Constitutional Law? No, Thanks

In 2009 the German Constitution was amended to introduce a balanced budget provision, or Schuldenbremse [debt brake]. Starting in 2016 the German federal government will be constrained to a deficit ceiling of 0.35% of GDP; from 2020 the Länder will not be permitted to run any deficit at all. An exception can be made for emergencies such as a natural disaster or economic crisis. All USA states except Vermont have a similar constitutional provision (Oregon is constitutionally bound to return to taxpayers any surplus in excess of 2%), though of course this does not stop them from incurring large debts. In any case States or Länder balanced budget commitments do not interfere with either a Federal macroeconomic stimulus or inter-state fiscal transfers, so that the restraint does not really matter all that much. There is a balanced budget provision is in the Swiss Constitution. Such a provision has been variously recommended also for the US Federal government but never achieved the support of two/thirds majority of states in both houses for it to be introduced.

Last year President Sarkozy proposed a return to balanced budget in France. On the eve of the Eurogroup meeting of 14 February 2011 the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, leader of European Democratic Conservatives, proposed the introduction of a German-style constitutional ceiling in other EU countries. In the coming weeks the French Premier François Fillon is expected to present a Constitutional amendment committing France to a specified time-path of progressive reduction of the deficit from €150bn (2010) down to zero, to be approved by Parliament before the summer and to be monitored by the Constitutional Council.

Let us leave aside questions of the political feasibility of introducing such an amendment into a country’s constitution, and of the credibility of a government commitment to implement it.
It is clear that current levels of sovereign debt are excessive and insustainable in most EU member states, and that deficits will have to be cut in order to stabilize and reduce them. The real question is about the effectiveness of government policies aimed at expenditure-cutting and tax raising. Such policies would reduce the deficit coeteris paribus , but at the same time are bound to reduce demand and therefore GDP and tax revenue to an even greater extent: their final outcome is indetermined.

Victoria Chick and Ann Pettifor (FT, 4 October 2010), using UK data from 1918 to 2009, show that a persistent expenditure cut is correlated with a rise in the debt/gross domestic product ratio; and expansions in expenditure with a fall in debt/GDP. They explain that “
This result arises because government is not in a position to determine its own deficit/surplus. The size of the budgetary outcome depends on the plans of the entire economic system and its reactions to the government’s planned actions.

“Since the deficit is not something that government can control, setting out to reduce the deficit is to look at the problem through the wrong end of a telescope: the way to reduce a deficit in a time of unemployment and feeble recovery is to spend (preferably wisely) to promote employment and permanent improvements to our infrastructure, including our “human capital””.

“Keynes looked through the telescope the right way round: “Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself.” "(Chick and Pettifor, 2010).

What is worse,
a simultaneous collective round of expenditure cuts and taxation increases is obviously going to have a greater impact on each country than its adoption by a single country – which is why the recessionary impact of deficit reduction is frequently under-estimated and neglected.

In any case, while a balanced budget might be a reasonable stance (possibly and conditionally) in an effort to stabilize public debt, surely this cannot be in a single year: not unnaturally, in 2003, approximately 90% of the members of the American Economic Association agreed with the statement,
"If the federal budget is to be balanced, it should be done over the course of the business cycle, rather than yearly."

The case for a balanced budget is often construed as a way to prevent a burden on future generations: thus fiscal stimulus is regarded as
“little more than an exercise in the redistribution of wealth from our grandchildren to today’s special interest groups” (Darrell Issa, "Obama's Keynesian failures must never be repeated“ , FT Comment, 8 February 2011)

John Eatwell commented that
“If government borrowing were indeed a burden, then real per capita income of future citizens would be reduced.”

“But where there is borrowing there is lending, so that payments of interest and repayments of capital that may result from stimulus packages are from taxpayers to lenders – no loss of real income there, just a transfer payment.”

“The assertion must therefore rest either on the argument that government spending “crowds out” private investment, not very credible with the current output gap and interest rate policy, or that there is a behavioural link from current borrowing to present and/or future levels of investment and growth.”

“It is possible to build models and select empirical evidence that go either way. What is not possible is to make the unambiguous assertion of future “burden”.”
(Burden on our grandchildren’ is ambiguous talk, FT Letters, 10 February).

The “crowding out” idea is indeed what lies behind advocacy of balanced budgets : public expenditure multipliers are deemed to be small, less than one, “close to zero” according to Barro. Individuals are believed to follow the principle of Ricardian equivalence: when government reduces expenditure today they expect lower taxes in the future and therefore they rush at once to work, earn and spend more . Thus fiscal consolidation is deemed to be expansionary, see the latest “Public finances in the EMU” report, or Rother, Schuknecht and Stark, “The benefits of fiscal consolidation in uncharted waters”, ECB, (2010).

However, recent empirical work (such as Christiano, Eichenbaum and Rebelo, “When is the government spending multiplier large?”, 2009 or Corsetti, Meier and Mueller, “What determines government spending multiplier?”, 2010) has shown that public expenditure multipliers “
are likely to be much larger, between one and two, when monetary policy is at the zero lower bound, when exchange rates are fixed and when a large number of households are credit-constrained. This is more or less the case in the current situation: a number of countries are experiencing de-leveraging by households, the central bank’s interest rate are low, preventing an accommodation by the central bank of a budgetary contraction, and the Eurozone countries have, by definition, fixed exchange rates.” (Raphael Cottin, Public finances in 2011: happy austerity,, 28.01.2011).

Cottin notes that the European Commission services implicitly recognize this: the latest “Public finances in the EMU” report mentions (Part III, section 6) that fiscal expansions are likely to be expansionary under the current conditions: “but the symmetrical argument, that fiscal consolidations are likely to be contractionary, is carefully avoided.”

The Italian writer Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) is famous, among other things, for having himself knotted tightly to his chair with rope, in order to discipline himself to hard work and uninterrupted study. This is traditionally taken as evidence of his strong will, as claimed in his celebrated statement "Volli, sempre volli, fortissimamente volli". Surely if Alfieri really had such a strong will he would not have needed to be tied so tightly to his chair. Sarkozy and Schauble may tie themselves and their own budget in knots but leave other member states alone to pursue a more rational and enlightened fiscal policy.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A single European sovereign bond? Pie in the sky, unless…

Delors’ Union Bonds

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1993, Jacques Delors proposed the issue of “Union bonds", whose repayment would be guaranteed by the Community budget, in addition to EIB (European Investment Bank) loans to finance infrastructure investments in transport, energy and telecommunications (EC White Paper on Growth, competitiveness, and employment. The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century, (COM (93) 700 final). This was a pale reflection of a much more ambitious and radical plan suggested to Delors by one of his economic advisers, Stuart Holland, who envisaged the issue of Union bonds by a European Investment Fund as a vehicle for the transfer of a substantial share of Member States’ national debt to the Union. After such “tranche transfer” member states would continue to service their share of their debt, but at a lower interest rate (Stuart Holland, The European Imperative: Economic and Social Cohesion in the 1990s. Foreword by Jacques Delors, Nottingham: Spokesman Press, 1993). Stuart expected the bonds not to count as debt of the member states, by analogy with US Treasury bonds, but because member states would continue to service them that analogy does not hold. Neither did he contemplate any need for a Union guarantee: the EU having virtually no debt, Union bonds would be credible regardless. Union bonds remained a dead letter.

Eurobond redux

The recent euro crisis, correctly seen as a crisis of sovereign debt, resurrected the idea of a single Eurobond whose issue would gradually replace at least part of the member states’ sovereign debt. In 2009-2010 several proposals in this sense were voiced again, among others by Paul de Grauwe and Wim Moesen (Gains for All: A Proposal for a Common Euro Bond, in: Intereconomics, Vol. 44, No. 3, 2009, pp.132-135), Daniel Gros and Stefano Micossi (A bond-issuing EU stability fund could rescue Europe, 2009, Europe’s World, spring); Jacques Delpla and Jakob von Weizsäcker, The Blue Bond Proposal, Bruegel Policy Brief 2010/3, May); Erik Jones, (A Eurobond proposal to promote stability and liquidity while preventing moral hazard, ISPI Policy Brief, n.180, March 2010); and, of course, Stuard Holland again (Europe needs a Gestalt shift, 2010 and elsewhere).

One such scheme was authoritatively backed by Luxembourg Premier and Treasury Minister Jean-Claude Junker and the Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti in the Financial Times of 5 December 2010 (E-bonds would end the crisis). Giuliano Amato also forcefully endorsed it (in IlSole-24Ore of 11 December 2010). But German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy rejected the idea, together with the alternative proposal of raising the size of the EFSF (European Financial Stabilisation Facility) set up in May 2010 to deal with Euro-zone sovereign default .

Lower interest rate

The scheme for a single Eurobond comes in different sizes and forms, but all proposals have an underlying consideration in common: a European bond would attract a lower interest rate than the average (weighted) interest rate at which nation states could borrow in international markets, because of the lower liquidity premium and the lower credit risk premium. The funds raised through issues of a single Eurobond could be channeled to Eurozone member states in various ways: by buying their new national bond issues, or by buying back old national bonds, or by lending to member states against the security of domestic bonds. If a tranche of member states’ debt could be “transferred” to the EU in this way, say something of the order of 60% of European GDP, in line with EU own-policy stated in the Maastricht Treaty and the Growth and Stability Pact, a Eurobond should not worry global financial markets. A stock of all-European bonds would give the Euro a wider appeal and promote its diffusion as a reserve currency. Eurozone debt as a percentage of GDP was 84% in 2010 (79% in 2009), 60% of it would be €5.5 trillion, large enough to compete with the US Treasury bonds and reap any conceivable benefits in terms of liquidity.

Responsibility for servicing these bonds could be envisaged as: several; several and collective; European.

Several responsibility

Every participating member state would be responsible for servicing these bonds in a pre-fixed proportion, say proportionally to the shares it holds in the European Central Bank (the kind of approach followed by De Grauwe and Moesen, 2009).

But an investor potentially interested in this type of bond could invest in it today, simply by purchasing a portfolio of bonds issued by all member states in the same proportions. Such composite instruments are not unusual: the Markit iTraxx SovX Western Europe Indez, for instance, is a basket of mostly Eurozone Credit Default Swaps. The yield on such composite bond would have to be exactly the same as that of a corresponding balanced portfolio. There would be no interest saving in issuing such a bond, for it would be a useless exercise. If the bond attracted a liquidity premium so should the composite portfolio, and financial intermediaries would profit from its introduction on an increasingly larger scale and, therefore, they would be bound to introduce it, without any official initiative or inducement.

Collective and several responsibility

Under this kind of scheme the bond could be covered by a "collective and several" guarantee, i.e. in case of default bond-holders could claim reimbursement from any participating member state of their choice (cf for instance, Jones 2010). A spokesman for President Sarkozy was reported as saying. "This proposal is not entirely new. It raises difficulties notably in terms of sharing costs and profits... " (, 10 December 2010). Obviously the interest cost of borrowing through a single Eurobond, though lower than the average cost of borrowing individually by member states, would be higher than that applicable to “virtuous” states. However the lower interest rate due to the lower risk and enhanced liquidity could benefit all: all countries could be charged a rate lower than but proportional to their own market rate, all being better off, even leaving something left over for accumulating a reserve.

In the case of several and collective responsibility for the bonds, however, there would remain two distributive problems. A minor problem is how to cope with member states with a debt/GDP ratio lower than the tranche of national debt whose transfer to the EU is envisaged. Slovakia at 42% debt/GDP ratio in 2010, Slovenia at 34%, Luxembourg at 20%, or Estonia with with a paultry 8%, would have to be granted a scaled down maximum liability in case of default. A second, major, problem is that more “virtuous” countries like Germany would be more exposed than weaker members to the risk of having to bail-out defaulters; who could indulge moreover in “moral hazard” behaviour and deliberately take advantage of the cover from such collective responsibility (though moral hazard would be limited to the share of their debt covered by Eurobonds, since the rest of their debt would attract a higher marginal interest rate). Thus it is perfectly understandable that Germans and other “virtuous” member states would be irreducibly opposed to such a scheme (unless accompanied by the realization of objectives close to the hearts of the virtuous, e.g. fiscal conformity across EU member states). True, even as things are now these countries are exposed to the risk of having to bailout defaulters, so much so that interest rates on German 10-year bonds have also increased from under 2% to almost 3%. But as things are now their liability is not automatic, it can be accepted or refused according to German perceived interests (such as German banks exposure to default), and subjected to conditionality imposed on defaulters. Therefore such a solution of collective and several responsibility for the single Eurobond is almost certainly politically impossible.

A European guarantee

Under this type of scheme the bond would be covered by a European guarantee extended by a hypothetical European Debt Agency that would have the task of “managing” a debt that has now become European. But “managing” debt involves manipulating the term structure of debt (funding and un-funding) and cover of exchange rate risk of bonds issued in foreign currency and the like, not the burden of debt service and repayment. It is crucial to consider that the European Union budget represents just over 1% of European GDP and, what is devastatingly worse, has a ZERO primary surplus, because the EU lacks the power of taxation and its scant revenues (primarily a share of VAT and the shrinking revenue from external common tariffs) can be supplemented by national contributions proportional to GDP only to balance the books and no more. Thus neither the EU Budget nor special Agencies obtaining resources from it can “manage” European debt, including its service, on the scale envisaged by the proposals (of the order of magnitude of over €5 trillion). Therefore such Eurobonds would get a rating lower than, say, that of Italy, who with tax revenues of 43% of GDP has at least the theoretical possibility of running a primary surplus and serving its debt.

Under a European guarantee the bonds in question would be among the junkiest of junk bonds, with a credit rating and an interest spread not lower but higher than the Eurozone average.

Junk bonds, unless…

Unless the Agency in charge of debt service were to be endowed from the start with an amount of resources adequate to credibly guarantee its Eurobond issues. But:

The EFSF could not act in that capacity because it can count only on participant states' national guarantees, not ready cash. Thus bond issues have to be over-collateralised in order to secure AAA rating since they are guaranteed by less-than-AAA rated countries, reducing the EFSF operational capacity from the trumpeted €440bn to about 230-240bn. And such funds would partly dissolve with any downgrading of guarantor member states, and would vanish proportionally to their share in the case of their default. So much is this so that a proposal has been discussed in Brussels "in finance ministry circles" whereby non-triple A nations such as Italy, Spain and Belgium should contribute cash payments to the EFSF rather than guarantees (, 21 January 2011). And recently Eurostat ruled that “Member states will have to account for EFSF’s debt issues as gross debt, proportionate to their share in the EFSF” ( 28 January 2011).

Nor could the ECB act in the capacity of guarantor, for several reasons. First, even modest ECB purchases of the sovereign debt of the weaker states during the recent crisis (on a scale of just over $82bn since last February) raised concerns about the quantitative growth and above all the quality of ECB assets, which required a more than doubling of ECB capital from €5bn to €10.8bn at the end of 2010. Secondly, the ECB has announced last week that even those purchases have come to an end. Thirdly, such operations are bound to infringe ECB independence and the pursuit of its inflation target of close to 2% but no more than 2%. Alberto Quadrio Curzio (Corriere della Sera, 12 December 2010) has suggested the issue of €1000bn bonds guaranteed by the surplus gold holdings of Eurozone Central Banks; Germany’s 3,406 tonnes, plus Italy’s 2,451 tonnes and France’s 2,435 tonnes, together hold reserves higher than those of the Fed at 8,133 tonnes. This may not be the best option, for it would impinge on Central Banks independence and meet general legal obstacles (as well as special obstacles in a country like Italy where the Central Bank has the curious feature of still having dominant private shareholders); but at least Alberto has faced the issue squarely and suggested a possible solution.

Certainly the EIB could issue Eurobonds on a large scale – although if and only if its capital were raised to an extent commensurate with the scale of its envisaged operations, in the form of monies actually disbursed up-front or guaranteed by AAA-rating states and not, as Stuart Holland so implausibly argues, because it can finance national investments with loans that are alleged not to count as national debt (they still need to be serviced by borrowing member states, why should they not count as part of their debt and where in the treaties does it say that they do not?). The same could be said of a correspondingly capitalized European Debt Agency or similar ad hoc institution. But any such capital increase would have to be raised by the weaker (low rating, high spread) individual states first.

Would global financial markets really be sufficiently benevolent, enlightened and optimistic as to see such an increase in national debt as a move towards the reduction of European sovereign risk? Suppose the indebted individual members of a family incurred new debt to provide a family-guarantee on some of their debt; would creditors really regard this as offering them additional protection, or as an increased risk of default deriving from moral hazard encouraging higher profligacy by those family members?

Without a considerable and effective tightening up of fiscal constraints, as demanded by Germany, it is unlikely that Euro-zone creative accounting via the creation of a Special Debt Agency – a kind of Special Investment Vehicle à la Enron – would restore global investors’ confidence in Euro sovereign debt. The single European bond seems to require fiscal Union as its pre-condition, rather than being a substitute for fiscal Union. Not in our lifetime (i.e., over our dead bodies) comes the Eurosceptic, nation-staters’ cry.

Think Small: the solution

Fiscal Union is not a yes or no option: it comes piecemeal too, responding to the minimum stake that different member states can afford or stomach. All that is required is that at least some of the national tax revenue of member states – corresponding to a uniform, at least initially small percentage of national GDP – is specifically earmarked to servicing the single Eurobonds issued by a European institution. This is how it could begin; its effects would be cumulative over time. Of course it would not generate additional resources to service sovereign debt but, starting from the other end of the salami, so to speak, it would be an effective way of enforcing the fiscal constraints that are a precondition of both a European response to European sovereign debt and an ever-deeper Union. If not now, when?

And if not, is there European life after member-state sovereign default?