Monetary stimulus is much more fun when it buys you a holiday

Why not use QE to give holiday vouchers to northern Europe? No, really, why not?

It's always nice to read a proposal that could simultaneously ease the euro crisis and get you a free holiday to Barcelona. It's even more fun seeing the idea gestate from a slightly boozy tweet to a full-blown plan, set in motion by the disability blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh:

After a while, I had a thought. All of the countries in trouble were holiday destinations - Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal even Ireland. The ones weathering the storm were the colder, northern countries. Would it not make sense to encourage and incentivise holidays? [...] Hell, was fun automatically not an option just because it was fun?

A few weeks ago, there were rumours of another 700 billion bailout for Eurozone banks. I had just watched Spanish banks get a bailout of more billions and the markets ate the extra money mercilessly in about 48 hours. With the press of a few buttons, the banks or markets appeared to have eaten the very money they had just created! [...]

I asked more seriously on twitter if any economists could explain to me why my holiday idea wouldn't be a better stimulus to the Eurozone than another bank bailout.

Marsh's idea was picked up by NIESR's Jonathan Portes, who wrote it up with Declan Gaffney, another prolific blogger on disability and welfare issues. Their plan sounds a lot like it would work, cost no more than a bank bailout, and as Sue says, be fun:

Our proposal is that they should issue vouchers to their citizens, redeemable only on spending in goods and services in those countries suffering financing difficulties (Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Italy). Holiday vouchers, in other words. So German holidaymakers could pay for their drinks in Cretan bars (and their flights, hotel bills, souvenirs, ferry tickets and the like) with "money" created by the ECB and distributed to them by their own government. The Greek businesses would in turn be able to trade in the vouchers for euros from the German government (via the banking system and the ECB).

This solves a number of problems. It would loosen monetary policy across the eurozone and ease the financing problems of the periphery countries. But most importantly, as Martin Wolf has long argued, the fundamental problem of the eurozone is not fiscal profligacy in periphery countries, but internal current account imbalances. Consumers in the periphery countries have been spending on goods and services from Germany and the Northern countries, but not vice versa, financed directly or indirectly by capital flows from those same countries. Now those flows have dried up; so one way or another, the current account balances must be corrected.

Both posts are well worth a read, and serve to drive home an important point: there are far more options to deal with crises than those that most policy makers think they actually have. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; but European governments have far more than just hammers in their toolbox.

Greeks sunbathe on a beach in Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR