Saturday, April 30, 2011

Politics, Not Economics, Will Decide Europe's Path

. Saturday, April 30, 2011

I'm jealous. Waldman's response to me got links from Financial Times, The Economist, Naked Capitalism, and Krugman, and I'm sure many others. I got none of that*. Even worse, Krugman jumped in and completely missed the point, as he has since this crisis began:

Steve Randy Waldman has a good post critiquing the now widespread notion that debt-troubled economies will have to engage in the same amount of austerity regardless of what they do with their currencies.

But I would go further than Waldman here; it’s not just that the fiscal deficit and the external deficit are different things; even the fiscal deficit becomes much easier to reduce if you can have a devaluation-led boom.

The "now widespread notion" is just me. I haven't seen anybody else make the argument. (I'm sure someone has, but it doesn't seem like many. I don't have unlimited time to scour the interwebs for every stray blogger or columnist, but I read Krugman every day and if it really was widespread I'm sure I'd've seen him rant about it several times by now.) But set that aside.

Iceland, Krugman's favorite crisis country, begs to differ. Debt-to-GDP has trebled, and with a devalued currency servicing any external debt is now much more expensive. Yes, they're getting to fiscal balance, but only because of... austerity. Krugman cites Argentina as a positive example, and their experience has been better than most. But Argentina's debt-to-GDP doubled after default. Their real GNI/capita halved (Atlas method), and took nearly a decade to get back to its prior level. They can't borrow on international markets, so they've had to boost domestic saving (and reduce domestic consumption). That's austerity. And that's the most positive example.

Anyway. Before SRW says the thing Krugman likes he agrees with me that austerity in some form is unavoidable for the Europeriphery, so all of Krugman's talk over the past few years needs to be heavily qualified. As to whether it's the "same amount" (I never said it was, so not even I am part of the "now widespread notion"), that's unknowable ex ante. But here's what we do know:

1. Domestic polities in Ireland and Greece are pissed off at austerity. They have already voted out their governments. Nevertheless, no EMU economies have defaulted/devalued. Not only that, but the crisis Baltics that peg to the euro have held firm too, and Iceland is hoping to join. That to me strongly indicates that there is a common belief among politicians and publics in those countries that default/devalue is among the worst options, and that other forms of austerity should be pursued first. Hell, they'd rather run into the arms of the IMF than default/devalue. Given the history of many of these countries, that should tell you something. In other words, these countries think default/devalue is worse for them than any other realistic alternative. But whatever; I'm sure Krugman knows what's best for them.

2. Krugman (and to a lesser extent Waldman) is imagining a static world in which there's a default/devalue... and then nothing else happens. But other things happen. The people you defaulted on get pissed off. They freeze your assets. They sue you in EU courts. They might restrict IMF funding. They might place trade restrictions or other sanctions. They never lend to you again. These are the richest, most powerful countries in the world. Poking them in the eye is a bad idea.

And this brings me to the only thing that matters. It's not the size of austerity under different scenarios. It's who pays. This isn't a utility maximization problem. It's politics. Krugman might have all the economics right, but it would be completely irrelevant if the politics doesn't match. So what do we know about the politics of fixed exchange rate regimes during crises?

Stephanie Walter wrote an article in 2008 on how states responded to the Asian crisis: with internal devaluation (measured by high interest rate increases to defend the exchange rate) or external devaluation (abandonment of the exchange rate peg). Her conclusion is that policy choices depended the size of political constituencies in those economies. In Hong Kong, which was highly financialized, the state defended the exchange rate at all costs. In less-financialized economies, particularly those with export-biased economies -- e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand -- states either devalued immediately or gave up defending their pegs fairly quickly. This should not be a great surprise, but it's worth pointing out.

Then of course there's Beth Simmons' classic study of the interwar period, Who Adjusts? (In our case, we might ask Who Pays?) Simmons argues that small open economies with stable governments that are dependent on trade were more likely to internally adjust in order to maintain the gold standard. Larger countries with less stable governments were more likely to devalue. Why? Small, trade-dependent countries with stable governments were more able to credibly commit to reforms, thus preventing capital flight. Others weren't. A sharp depreciation in the capital account not only makes keeping a fixed exchange rate more difficult, it also impoverishes an economy through a decline in investment**. This also needs to be built into the cost of austerity-via-devaluation.

So what lessons can we learn. Ireland is a small open economy, that is highly financialized and trade dependent. It has a stable government that has made a commitment to maintain its exchange rate, which, in this case, means staying in the euro. Because of its high financialization, it would be hurt terribly by a devaluation and capital flight. Considering how battered its financial sector already is, that would likely cause the economy to totally collapse. And of course it's already happening, but its low corporate tax rates have kept a lot of foreign finance in the country that would otherwise be gone. So expect no devaluation, unless there is literally no other choice.

Iceland, on the other hand, never had a fixed exchange rate to defend. The krona bounced around a lot to the euro even before the crisis, although that pales in comparison to what's happened since. Iceland tried fix the krona to the Euro it in late 2008, but that only lasted one day. Devaluation wasn't chosen as a rational option or a lesser evil; it happened because Iceland couldn't stop it. Now, as mentioned previously, Iceland is seeking membership in the EMU and adoption of the euro to prevent the sort of turbulence that they've recently gone through.

Greece? Not as highly financialized, a less stable government that is unable to make credible commitments to much of anything. Not as small or dependent on trade as Iceland and Ireland, although the difference might not be meaningful. Capital flight has already happened. A long history of profligacy, and a citizenry that didn't pay taxes in the best times. Internal devaluation is likely impossible even if it were desirable. Looks like a devaluation to me.

There are important political dynamics in the Eurocore as well, but this is (again) already too long. In a nutshell, it matter who owns the debt the periphery has accrued. That is mostly the core. They, obviously, don't want default. So they'll try to commit to my #2 above as credibly as they can. Maybe that makes austerity worse in aggregate than if they were nicer. Maybe not. The point is that question is irrelevant. It's like asking what nice things Obama would do if he didn't have to bother with elections.

*I am jealous, of course, but I don't begrudge Waldman anything. He's got a great track record, writes carefully and well, and is very smart. Plus fun to converse with on Twitter. I have no track record, write nothing until after at least four glasses of wine, and am cantankerous on social media.

**For those playing at home, this relates to Waldman's "as long as" statement that I honed in on in my last post.


Emmanuel said...

Haven't been following this thread to be honest but you can rest assured that I learned of it through here. You've got the right strategy, though--engage with other blogs with a large following like Drezner, Waldman, etc. and it should pay off eventually.

IPE bloggers flock together--even if they're of a different feather (though I am usually unproblematic with Thomas Oatley).

Politics, Not Economics, Will Decide Europe's Path
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