Buiter on the “triad of Teutonic fallacies”

Excellent recent speech by Willem Buiter on “Unemployment and inflation in the Eurozone: why has demand management failed so badly?”. As always he makes many insightfull points, but I just highlight two which I found particularly important.

The first concerns the issue independence and the scope of the mandate of the ECB:

“The notion that central banks should focus exclusively on their mandates and not be active participants in wider public policy debates, let alone be active players in the negotiations and bargaining processes that produce the political compromises that will help shape the economic, social and political evolution of our societies is, I believe, sound. Alan Blinder described this need for modesty and restraint for central bankers as “sticking to their knitting”. Both fiscal policy and structural reform have clear and often significant distributional consequences. They are, therefore, deeply political. As regards fiscal policy, this is so obvious it does not require elaboration. But structural reform too, including labour market liberalization, opening up the professions, and opening up product market to greater domestic or external competition, is not just about efficiency gains or the size of the pie, but about the distribution of the pie. What looks as an artificial barrier to entry to an economist is a source of rents to the protected worker, professional or firm. When central bankers take part in the often very partisan political debates on fiscal policy and structural reform, they compromise and undermine their independence.”

“The President of the ECB, Mario Draghi, like his predecessor Jean‐Claude Trichet, is actively trying to influence and shape euro area (EA) policies in the areas of fiscal policy and structural reform, using a range of possible monetary policy interventions as sticks or carrots to get national governments and the European Commission to do what he considers to be ‘the right things’. His recent address at the Jackson Hole Conference organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas demonstrates how broad the range of economic issues is on which the President of the ECB feels comfortable to lecture, some might saybadger, the political leadership of the EA (Draghi (2014)). Regardless of the economic merits of Draghinomics, there is something worrying, from a constitutional/legal/political/legitimacy perspective, if unelected central bank technocrats become key movers and shakers in the design and implementation of reforms and policies in areas well beyond their mandate and competence.”

The second concerns the current fallacies that hinder an appropriate policy response:

“In the Euro area, demand stimulus through fiscal policy has been severely handicapped by the widespread acceptance of the Triad of Teutonic Fallacies. The first of these is that there are reckless and/or stupid borrowers/debtors but no reckless and/or stupid lenders/creditors. As we are talking about the same transactions, that position is rather difficult to defend. It is, however, firmly believed by many living north of the Rhine, and it gives the creditors a sense of moral superiority or even outrage that diminishes their cognitive capabilities. The second fallacy is that expansionary fiscal policy is contractionary. There are indeed models in which this is the case. Provided any fiscal deficit expansion resulting from a fiscal stimulus is monetised, however, this will never be the case in a world with excess capacity and inflation below target. The third fallacy is that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank will inevitably get monetised and lead to an undesirable increase in the rate of inflation. The fact that this is analytical nonsense does not mean it is not an influential view.”

Does the UK really spends too much on labour market policies?

Consistent with previous trends in reforms of labour market policies, the UK government has announced yet another restriction on unemployment benefit claimants. The striking thing about these reforms is not that they are unlikely to be effective, nor that even if they were effective they probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in reducing the unemployment rate. Instead, the main issue is that they completely misrepresent the nature and extent of the problem.

Two sets of claims generally underpin the rhetoric of these reforms. The first is that benefit recipients fraud and that one must therefore restrict their access to prevent them from doing so. As official statistics (see page 13) themselves reveal, the amount of fraud is in fact very low: fraud cost only about 2.6% of expenditure on income support and 2.9% of spending on Job seeker allowance (see table below).


The second claim is that these policies simply cost too much and that the system is too generous in the UK. To assess the validity of this perception, I look at 2009 spending data on various labour market policies (from the OECD statistics website). One should distinguish between so called active labour market policies that include training schemes, employment incentives, rehabilitation programs, etc, and passive labour market policies that are mainly composed of traditional unemployment benefits.

Starting with the former, the table below shows that the UK ranks 21st among developed countries in terms of spending on active labour market policies expressed as a percentage of GDP. Scandinavian countries and continental European countries spend important amounts on these policies, while the US, Australia and Canada, along with some eastern European countries spend much less. With respect to passive labour market policies (again expressed as a percentage of GDP), the UK ranks 31st among developed countries… If one divides the spending on these policies by the unemployment rate to get a measure of relative ‘effort’ given the ‘need’, the picture still looks bleak for the UK’s unemployed.

spending on ALMPs as of GDP



PLMPs as  GDP by UR

Of course there is significant evidence that the design of unemployment benefits (and other social policies) has important effects on recipients’ incentives to return to work. But the paradox is that as one reduces the amount that unemployed can claim, their incentive to actively seek work to avoid losing benefits actually falls (i.e. the cost of non-compliance with benefit schemes’ requirements decreases as the amount of the benefit is reduced).

In addition, for active labour market programs to be effective they need to be well-funded. In other words, improving incentives can only achieve so much if unemployed are not properly trained, there are no funds to promote their mobility, and the net gains of employment are low because an insufficient number of full time jobs . Given that the level of fraud is low and that spending on labour market policies is comparatively small, it makes no sense for the government to try to further restrict eligibility and add sanctions (on a benefit system that has already been significantly ‘activated’). Instead, there is a need to improve training and access to education, and to support aggregate demand (instead of tightening budgets) to increase the number of vacancies that have no yet recovered:

New Picture (1)

Public and private European Debt in 2001 and 2012

Thanks to the really good Big Picture Blog, I’ve just discovered this really cool tool developed by the Wall Street Journal to visualise the evolution of private and public debt.

Restricting the sample to Western European countries (with Canada and the US included as reference point) and comparing the debt situation in 2001 to that in 2012, reveals some interesting patterns. The Y axis displays the level of public debt as % of GDP, the X axis private debt as % of GDP, and the size of the circles indicates the level of aggregate GDP.

First in 2001, one observes the well-documented trade-off between public and private debt: southern European countries fared worse with respect to public debt but much better in terms of private debt. Thus, among European countries the main difference is more about the distribution of debt among public and private actors than the level.

Turning to 2012, a lot of countries have seen their levels of public debt rise (note that Greece prior to the bailout reached roughly 120% of public debt in 2011 – it’s now gone down to French levels). Except for Sweden and Norway that fare much better than the rest, one continues to see an possible trade-off between public and private debt. Spain as is known faces particularly problematic levels of private debt (but note also the Netherlands and Denmark).

New paper on link between labour, central banks and EMU crisis

Transfer (2013), 19(1): 89–101.
Bob Hancke
This article examines the problems of the single currency in light of the organization of labour relations in the Member States and their interaction with monetary policies. Continental (western) Europe consists of two very different systems of employment and labour relations, roughly coinciding with ‘coordinated market economies’ in the north-west of the continent, and ‘Mixed Market Economies’ in the south. These differences in employment relations and wage-setting systems implied that, against the background of a relatively restrictive one-size-fits-all monetary policy in place since 1999, the north-west of the continent systematically improved its competitiveness, while the south lost competitiveness in parallel. Small differences between the two groups of countries at the start of EMU thus were accentuated and, against the background of low growth and an almost closed E(M)U economy, the northern coordinated market economies accumulated current account surpluses while the GIIPS (Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain) ran into severe balance of payments problems in 2010 and 2011.

Unemployment benefit generosity before and during the crisis

What countries offer the most generous replacement of lost income in the event of job loss? And how have governments changed unemployment benefit since the onset of the economic crisis?
Thanks to a new dataset assembled by Olaf van Vliet & Koen Caminada (version 1, January 2012), we now have data on unemployment benefit schemes in 34 welfare states from the 1970s until 2009.
Below I chart the net replacement rate for an average worker in a one earner household with two children for 2006 and the latest year available in the dataset (2009).
First, as is well documented in the welfare state literature, notice the difference compared to the gross replacement rates which I discussed in an older post. In general, gross replacement rates tend to under-estimate the extent to which liberal welfare states such as the US compensate for income loss.
Second, one can identify three paths. Southern European countries such as Italy and Greece and European liberal market economies such as the UK and Ireland exhibit increases in their replacement rates.
Another group of countries have mildly reduced their replacement rates. This includes eastern European countries such as Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Hungary but also non-EU liberal market economies such as the US and Australia. The scandinavian countries (Denmark, Finland and especially Sweden) have also reduced their unemployment benefit entitlements.

Source: Olaf Van Vliet & Koen Caminada (2012), ‘Unemployment replacement rates dataset among 34 welfare states 1971-2009: An update, extension and modification of the Scruggs’ Welfare State Entitlements Data Set’, NEUJOBS Special Report No. 2, Leiden University.

Privatisation, Partisanship and the IMF

Pressures to Privatize? The IMF, Globalization, and Partisanship in Latin America 
By David Doyle, Political Research Quaterly


Despite pervasive downward pressure on government policy from exogenous forces, the author argues that partisanship still exerts an effect on privatization in Latin America. When a country is indebted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and a government of the right is in power, scholars can expect increased levels of privatization. However, when a country is indebted to the IMF and a government of the left is in power, electoral incentives will prompt these governments to ignore IMF pressure and reduce levels of privatization. The author tests this argument on a data set of eighteen Latin American countries, between the years 1984 and 1998.

Labour market policy reaction to the crisis in Europe and the US

Southern European countries that are currently facing particularly acute labour market issues have done little in terms of additional training. Italy and Spain have seen the most important increases in spending on unemployment benefits. Only Greece has stepped up spending on employment and start up incentives.

Liberal Market Economies have raised spending on unemployment benefits (particularly strongly for Ireland) but only Ireland has slightly enhanced training. It’s also striking to note the reduction in US spending on unemployment benefits between 2009 and 2010.

None of these countries spend anything on job rotation nor on early retirement (except for Ireland – that has actually decreased spending). Similarly, only Ireland has increased spending on direct job creation and employment incentives and now spends important amounts on these programs.

Turning our attention to other continental European countries reveals that there was not much action in Germany, while France expanded expanded spending on job creation and start up incentives. Austria and the Netherlands have not altered spending on other active labour market policies in any important ways whereas Belgium has raised spending on employment incentives.

What is striking is how little most countries have done in terms of expanding programs targeted at the unemployed, given the depth of the economic crisis. More information on these programs can be found here.

Reactions to the economic crisis

New paper by Jonas Pontusson and Damian Raess: “How (and Why) Is This Time Different? The Politics of Economic Crisis in Western Europe and the United States


This article compares government responses to the Great Recession of 2008–2009 with government responses to recessions and other economic challenges in the period 1974–1982. We focus on five countries: France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Across these countries, we observe two broad shifts in crisis responses. First, governments have in the recent period eschewed heterodox crisis policies and relied more exclusively on fiscal stimulus. Second, tax cuts have become a more important component of fiscal stimulus while spending cuts have featured more prominently in governments’ efforts to consolidate their fiscal position. We argue that crisis responses reflect the interests and power of domestic actors as well as external constraints and the nature of the economic problems at hand.