Do economists ever get it right?

There is one example when they did . . .

According to popular belief, economists rarely manage to predict correctly the consequences of important policy actions. Nevertheless, the case of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is one of those instances which economists did get it right.

Indeed, as far back as 1977, the MacDougall Report to the European Commission concluded that because the European Economic Community budget was very small, “… in present circumstances monetary union is impracticable.” Moreover, many economists on both sides of the Atlantic were cautioning against the planned single currency in the absence of a significant fiscal redistribution facility and/or the ability to run countercyclical fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, the political bandwagon prevailed, and the Delors Report threw caution to the wind and assumed that EMU could proceed without significant increases in the size of the EU budget, which was hovering around 1% of GDP (the 1977 Report was deeming it as necessary that the federal budget be as large as 10% of GDP). The only “concession” to economists’ concerns was the Maastricht Treaty rules imposing limits on government debts and deficits — as encapsulated in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

However, the precedence given to moral-hazard considerations (and the defective way they were applied) over countercyclical fiscal policy — due to the fear that profligate governments would be too keen to run large budget deficits in recessions but very reluctant to run offsetting budget surpluses in booms — proved detrimental. Since the main focus of the SGP was on deficit limits, the resulting reduction (due to the euro) in real interest rates and concomitant boom experienced by some of the ‘periphery’ countries of the Eurozone made it very easy for governments to run (or to claim that they do) budget deficits below the 3% (of GDP) limit. Yet, this semblance of fiscal prudence — when in fact governments should be running budget surpluses — undermined their ability to conduct appropriately expansionary fiscal policy, when the boom ended, without running excessively large budget deficits.

To a large extent the semblance of fiscal prudence was aided by the very large current account deficits which some of the periphery countries were allowed to run during the Euro’s first decade. Although this appears to run counter to the well-known “twin deficits hypothesis” (i.e. that a larger budget deficit leads to a larger current account deficit), the experience of the periphery countries suggests that it is possible the direction of causality to be from a larger current account deficit to a smaller budget deficit.

For the periphery countries, EMU participation facilitated international borrowing at lower interest rates, allowing for a huge deterioration in the current account while the budget deficit improved. The reason is that imports, which become possible through international borrowing, need not fully displace spending on domestically produced goods (they may even increase it!). Moreover, they can create a revenue boon for the government. For example, car imports generate immediate tax revenue (VAT, registration taxes, etc.). They also allow for increases in domestic value added (e.g. services related to sales, advertising, and repairs of automobiles), thus allowing for second-round increases in income tax revenue. In the same vein, foreign loans (intermediated through the domestic banking sector) allowed for housing booms and created unsustainable increases in tax revenue.

The upshot of the above is that cynical governments may “achieve” a seemingly strict adherence to the SGP limits on budget deficits (they may even run budget surpluses as Spain and Ireland did), for some years, by running current account deficits; however, once foreign capital dries out the lack of fiscal space for countercyclical fiscal policy becomes evident. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the SGP provided the wrong signals about the exercise of countercyclical fiscal policy. It also failed to provide a replacement for the lack of market discipline. The moral is that the warnings of economists about the ability of the SGP to provide a framework for “monetary and fiscal stability” should have been heeded.

George Economides and Thomas Moutos, Guest Editors of the CESifo Economic Studies Special Issue on ‘EMU: The Way Forward’, are Professors of Economics in the Department of International and European Economic Studies, Athens University of Economics and Business, and CESifo Research Fellows.

CESifo Economic Studies publishes provocative, high-quality papers in economics, with a particular focus on policy issues. Papers by leading academics are written for a wide and global audience, including those in government, business, and academia. The journal combines theory and empirical research in a style accessible to economists across all specialisations.

This article first appeared on blog.oup.com, and is republished here with permission

A statue outside the European Commission. Photo: Getty
George Economides and Thomas Moutos, Guest Editors of the CESifo Economic Studies Special Issue on ‘EMU: The Way Forward’, are Professors of Economics in the Department of International and European Economic Studies, Athens University of Economics and Business, and CESifo Research Fellows.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.