How austerity was based on market panic

Markets were full of fear. When that receded, so did the bond spreads.

When countries across Europe were putting together austerity policies in 2011, the orthodox reasoning was that the debt and deficit of the nations were out of control, and that this was being communicated by the markets, in the form of bond yields.

But did nations actually base their estimates of the need for austerity on the fiscal fundamentals? Or were they misled by market reaction? A research paper from Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji breaks down the question.

It's certainly the case that the austerity was based, almost entirely, on the state of the market. The authors compare the extent of austerity measures in 2011 with the spreads of the nations' bonds (the difference between each country’s 10-year government bond rate and the German 10-year government bond rate), and find a near-perfect correlation:

Austerity measures and spreads in 2011

The authors write:

There can be little doubt. Financial markets exerted different degrees of pressure on countries. By raising the spreads they forced some countries to engage in severe austerity programs. Other countries did not experience increases in spreads and as a result did not feel much urge to apply the austerity medicine.

Now, that in itself is not particularly problematic. After all, if the financial markets are rationally responding to problems in the respective nations' finances, then it makes sense to try and calm them by getting finances under control. But if the markets are instead in the throes of irrational panic, then basing policy around their whims is problematic.

Ji and de Grauwe then come up with two proxies to test what it actually was which was driving the financial markets. If the markets are acting rationally, then as fundamentals improve, the spreads should fall. So, starting in mid-2012, they compare the change in debt-to-GDP ratio (just one possible measure of fiscal health) to the change in spread values.

They find that, over the period they're examining, debt-to-GDP ratio increases in every one of the ten nations they study. Despite this, however, the spreads decrease in each — and those decreases aren't particularly correlated with the debt-to-GDP change:


Change in debt-to-GDP ratio vs. spreads since 2012Q2

The bond markets don't appear to pay much attention to the basic financial health of the nations. What they do pay attention to is the European Central Bank. The paper states that:

The decision by the ECB in 2012 to commit itself to unlimited support of the government bond markets was a game changer in the Eurozone. It had dramatic effects. By taking away the intense existential fears that the collapse of the Eurozone was imminent the ECB’s lender of last resort commitment pacified government bond markets and led to a strong decline in the spreads of the Eurozone countries.

In the summer of 2012, the ECB removed fear from the equation. What happened then was a widespread collapse in bond spreads. But the collapse wasn't uniform; instead, "countries whose spread had climbed the most prior to the ECB announcement experienced the strongest decline in their spreads". By taking away panic, the ECB lets us see that almost all of the prior variation in the bond spreads had been as a result of that panic.

Basing policy on calm sensible market reactions might work; basing it on the reaction of markets in existential fear probably wouldn't. That's traditionally the time when politicians start trying to lead markets, rather than follow them. And, sure enough, the authors repeat a calculation confirmed by many others: panic-driven austerity has crushed growth in the nations it's been practiced…

Austerity and GDP growth 2011-2012

…and has hurt fiscal fundamentals in those same nations, with debt-to-GDP ratios getting worse the more austerity is practiced:


Austerity and increases in debt-to-GDP ratios

The TUC's Duncan Weldon (whose tweets first pointed me to the research) sums up the lessons we've learned:

  1. Financial markets are perfectly capable of acting irrationally. Market panic drove extreme austerity in Southern Europe.
  2. Extreme austerity has proved self-defeating – it means debt/GDP ratios are higher not lower.
  3. Markets, to quote the IMF’s Chief Economist, can be ‘schizophrenic’ – they initially reward harsh austerity measures and then panic when they, predictably, lead to weaker growth.
  4. The end result is that market panic, followed by policy-maker panic, has imposed huge economic and social costs across Europe

Seems like if politicians really really want to base their decisions on the ill-thought-out panic of large numbers of people, they ought to at least wait for an election.

Gambling with out future. 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.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump