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.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation