I have written before about fiscal policy in the Netherlands. I have done so in part because that country has a strong macroeconomic tradition, and I regard their long standing fiscal council (CPB) as a model of how to try and get good economic analysis and evidence into the policy debate. It is therefore an indication that something is very wrong when the political consensus there follows the austerity line.
The key target for policy in the Netherlands appears to be the 3% budget deficit number that was at the centre of the old Stability and Growth Pact. The latest CPB forecasts are for deficits of 3.3% of GDP in 2013, and 3.4% in 2014. The main reason is that the economy is in recession: GDP is expected to fall by 0.5% this year (following a fall of 0.9% in 2012), and grow by only 1% in 2014. The governing coalition includes the Labour Party, and its leader Diederik Samsom says it would be unwise to sharply cut government spending in a recession. What he means by this is that they will not try and hit the 3% figure this year, but instead do so next year! After announcing austerity measures of over 2.5% of GDP in the autumn, the coalition has recently prepared a list of additional cuts totalling 0.7% of GDP. These include tax increases, a pay freeze for public sector workers and extra charges on industry.
So we have a discretionary procyclical fiscal policy, in an economy without its own monetary policy to offset its impact. The one ray of hope is that the trade unions, who have previously been prepared to discuss the details of austerity, no longer wish to do so. The FT reports the largest labour federation as describing the cuts as “stupid and ill-advised”. The Labour Party is urging the unions to take part in discussions about the cuts, so they can – as one report puts it – “seize the opportunities offered by new measures to stimulate the economy”. This sounds a bit like asking a Christmas Turkey to talks about the recipe for the stuffing. The unemployment rate, which was 4.4% in 2011, is expected to rise to 6.5% in 2014.
So why are politicians, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, pursuing a policy that most economists regard as an elementary error? This was a question raised by Coen Teulings, who is the director of the CPB, the Dutch fiscal council. He was commenting on an IMF sponsored conference in Sweden, at which most economists argued against short run austerity when the economy was weak, and instead advocated dealing with budgetary problems through long term structural reform. The politicians in the audience, led by the Swedish finance minister Anders Borg, disagreed. He summarises their view as follows: “Politicians lack the ability to commit today to austerity measures to be implemented tomorrow. Hence, the only option is to take action straightaway.” (Borg was a driving force behind setting up Sweden’s own fiscal council, but his subsequent interaction with it has been more difficult, as Lars Calmfors and I describe here.)
Tuelings does not take this argument seriously, for good reasons. Instead he provides three suggestions as to why politicians are ignoring the economists. The first is a memory of the 1970s, when Keynesian policies were pursued because many failed to see the structural impact of the oil crisis. Politicians do not want to make the same mistake again. The second is that economists neglected countercyclical fiscal policy for too long, and therefore have failed to provide politicians with a clear guide to what policy should be, like perhaps an equivalent to the Taylor rule for monetary policy. Third, while both structural reform and short term austerity have political costs, politicians can sell the latter more easily, and success can be demonstrated more quickly.
The last argument can be partly seen as the austerity counterpart to the common pool explanation for deficit bias: structural reform can hit particular groups hard, while generalised austerity spreads pain more widely (or perhaps hits particular groups who have a small political voice). There may be something in the second argument, but there is a chicken and egg issue here. As someone who has written papers evaluating fiscal rules for a number of years, I have not noted much interest from European policymakers.
I suspect, however, that most of the interest in Taylor rules for monetary policy comes from central banks rather than politicians. I think this is a key problem with fiscal stabilisation policy: the lack of an institution that fosters research of this kind, that consolidates knowledge and pools wisdom. In my dreams I imagine a linked set of national fiscal councils that could play that role. What is unfortunately very clear is that central banks (or at least those running them) cannot do for fiscal policy what they have done for monetary policy: just look at the detailed and well formulated analysis of austerity in this recent speech (section 3.1) by the president of the Bundesbank. Returning to the Netherlands, it is no secret that the CPB is not part of the austerity consensus, while the Dutch central bank certainly is.
This column was first published on Mainly Macro