Do economists ever get it right?

There is one example when they did . . .

A statue outside the European Commission. Photo: Getty

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