European political leaders may be about to agree to a fiscal plan which, if implemented, could push Europe into a major depression. To understand why, it is useful to compare how European countries responded to downturns in demand before and after they adopted the euro.
Consider how France, for example, would have responded in the 1990’s to a substantial decline in demand for its exports. If there had been no government response, production and employment would have fallen. To prevent this, the Banque de France would have lowered interest rates. In addition, the fall in incomes would have automatically reduced tax revenue and increased various transfer payments. The government might have supplemented these “automatic stabilizers” with new spending or by lowering tax rates, further increasing the fiscal deficit.
In addition, the fall in export demand would have automatically caused the franc’s value to decline relative to other currencies, with lower interest rates producing a further decline. This combination of monetary, fiscal, and exchange rate changes would have stimulated production and employment, preventing a significant rise in unemployment.
However, when France adopted the euro, two of these channels of response were closed off. The franc could no longer depreciate relative to other eurozone currencies. The interest rate in France — and in all other eurozone countries — is now determined by the European Central Bank, based on demand conditions within the monetary union as a whole. So the only countercyclical policy available to France is fiscal: lower tax revenue and higher spending.
While that response implies a higher budget deficit, automatic fiscal stabilizers are particularly important now that the eurozone countries cannot use monetary policy to stabilize demand. Their lack of monetary tools, together with the absence of exchange rate adjustment, might also justify some discretionary cyclical tax cuts and spending increases.
Unfortunately, several eurozone countries allowed fiscal deficits to grow in good times, rather than only when demand was weak. In other words, these countries’ national debt grew because of “structural” as well as “cyclical” budget deficits.
Structural budget deficits were facilitated over the past decade by eurozone interest rates’ surprising lack of responsiveness to national differences in fiscal policy and debt levels. Because financial markets failed to recognize distinctions in risk among eurozone countries, interest rates on sovereign bonds did not reflect excessive borrowing. The single currency also meant that the exchange rate could not signal differences in fiscal profligacy.
Greece’s confession in 2010 that it had significantly understated its fiscal deficit was a wake-up call to the financial markets, causing interest rates on sovereign debt to rise substantially in several eurozone countries.
The EU’s summit in Brussels in early December was intended to prevent such debt accumulation in the future. The heads of member states’ governments agreed in principle to limit future fiscal deficits by seeking constitutional changes in their countries that would ensure balanced budgets. Specifically, they agreed to cap annual “structural” budget deficits at 0.5 percent of GDP, with penalties imposed on countries whose total fiscal deficits exceeded 3 percent of GDP — a limit that would include both structural and cyclical deficits, thus effectively limiting cyclical deficits to 3 percent of GDP.