Opinion

When facts change, change the pact

“When facts change, I change my mind,” John Maynard Keynes famously said. With long-term interest rates currently near zero, the European Union should reform its fiscal framework to allow member states to increase their debt-financed public investments.

By: Date: May 1, 2019 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

This opinion was also published on Project Syndicate

Project Syndicate logo

The European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets fiscal rules for its member states, is like the emperor’s new clothes. Almost everyone sees it has none, yet few admit it openly. This disingenuous silence is bad economics and bad politics.

For starters, the pact’s rules are so hopelessly complex that almost no government minister, let alone member of parliament, can decipher them. There are now various reform proposals that aim to simplify things, including by a group of French and German economists to which I belong.

Most of these proposals would place less emphasis on estimating member states’ cyclically-adjusted budget deficits – a notoriously difficult calculation – and focus instead on monitoring growth in public spending. Concretely, each government would commit to expenditures consistent with the country’s economic growth outlook and expected tax receipts, and in line with a medium-term debt target. There would be less micromanagement by EU institutions, more room for national decision-making, and more responsibility for individual governments.

Ministers have so far shown no appetite for such radical reform. But there is now a second reason to overhaul the EU’s fiscal framework: today’s economic conditions are very different from those when the pact was designed over two decades ago. “When facts change, I change my mind,” John Maynard Keynes famously said. And the facts have certainly changed.

The pact entered into force in 1997. At the time, the median public debt among the 11 EU countries that would initially adopt the euro was 60% of GDP, while the forecast was 3% growth and 2% inflation. The risk-free long-term interest rate – at which most eurozone countries would soon borrow – was 5%. Stabilizing the debt ratio at its prevailing 60% level therefore required governments to keep their budget deficits below 3% of GDP – or, put another way, to maintain a primary budget balance (revenues minus spending, excluding interest payments) of zero.

Such guidelines made sense. If growth faltered, revenue shrank, or markets started pricing in a default, there would be a real risk of debt spiraling out of control – as Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis of 2010-2012 later showed. The 3%-of-GDP deficit threshold that triggers the activation of a stronger policy monitoring procedure was thus a rough but reasonably calibrated benchmark. Moreover, it was wise to aim for significantly lower deficits, in order to maintain a safety margin.

In 2019, the median debt for the same 11 countries is 70% of GDP, while the International Monetary Fund currently forecasts 1.5% growth and 2% inflation (debt is a bit lower and growth a bit higher if all eurozone members are included). True, projected growth is half the level it was in 1997. Nonetheless, stabilizing the debt ratio requires keeping budget deficits below 2.5% of GDP, which remains close to the pact’s 3% limit.

The big change from two decades ago, however, is the collapse in interest rates. Investors were recently willing to buy ten-year German government bonds yielding essentially nothing. Taking inflation into account, the real cost of German debt is significantly negative – as it is, to a lesser degree, for France, Spain, and most other eurozone members. Even Italy, with debt exceeding 130% of GDP and dismal growth, was able to borrow at 2.6%, or 2.4 percentage points less than Germany in 1997.

Under such conditions, a budget-deficit limit of 3% of GDP is, in fact, fairly lax. If long-term interest rates remain near zero for a few more years, governments will be able to run primary deficits greater than 2% of GDP without exceeding that limit. Many EU countries are likely to use this opportunity to finance current spending on the cheap. But should financial conditions change abruptly, they will be forced to adjust precipitously.

The European Commission insists that the 3% threshold is only an upper limit. Reforms to the pact in 2011 have tightened the screws. Eurozone countries are expected to keep their structural budget deficit (corrected for cyclical effects) close to zero, and those with a debt ratio exceeding 60% of GDP are mandated to reduce it.

However, the resulting constraints are too tight. The zero target for the structural deficit prevents governments from borrowing at today’s negative real interest rates to finance investments and reforms. And, as Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute has forcefully argued, there is no compelling economic reason to cut debt when borrowing is costless.

The EU sits between a rock and a hard place. It should not let member states make a habit of financing recurring current expenditures with debt. But nor should it prevent them from taking advantage of persistently low interest rates to finance economically sound investments that will benefit future generations.

Europe should therefore reform its fiscal framework. Deficit hawks (especially in Germany) will no doubt protest, but prohibition without a rationale is politically unsustainable. Why wouldn’t EU citizens accept channeling debt-financed public investments into environmental research, renewable energy, clean transportation systems, and other efforts to contain climate change, when financial conditions would make such investments collectively profitable?

Longstanding criticism of the pact for neglecting the distinction between investment and current spending is valid, to the extent that investment is defined economically rather than in accounting terms. The EU should therefore agree on a set of goals – such as the transition to a low-carbon economy, broader access to employment, and output-enhancing economic reforms – that justify public spending temporarily in excess of the fiscal rule (unless, of course, the country is in a financially precarious state). Such an exemption should be conditional on long-term interest rates remaining exceptionally low. If rates were to rise, governments would have to trim and eventually discontinue these investments.

The need to revise the EU’s fiscal rules is clear. The main political parties competing in May’s European Parliament elections should recognize it and make the case openly. At a time when the EU’s very purpose is being questioned, economics taboos are the last thing Europe needs.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Improving regulatory policy formulation and institutional resilience in Europe

Are large differences in the resilience of individual economies related to differences in the quality of country-level institutions that shape the absorption and response to these shocks? At this event we'll discuss the evolution of labour markets, and the role of institutional design and good process.

Speakers: Arup Banerji, Maria Demertzis, J. Scott Marcus, Céline Kauffmann and Rogier van den Brink Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 13, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Upbeat outlook from Chinese banks' profits masks growing problems for small banks

The performance of Chinese banks has been resilient so far, despite decelerating growth. While the performance of large banks remained steady, the rebound came from small banks. Why have small banks rebounded and is the rebound sustainable?

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Gary Ng Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 12, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Russian economy at the crossroads: how to boost long-term growth?

Russia’s convergence to advanced economy income levels has stalled. Long-term growth prospects are still obstructed by sluggish productivity growth, low capital accumulation and shrinking labour inputs. The new government has articulated a set of ambitious policy objectives for the next six years. But are additional reforms necessary to further boost productivity and investments in line with government targets?

Speakers: Marek Dabrowski, Markus Ederer, Elena Flores, Alexander Larionov, Dmitry Polevoy, Niclas Poitiers and Alexey Vedev Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Kadashevskaya Naberezhnaya, 14, Moscow, Russia, 115035 Date: November 7, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

China’s growing presence on the Russian market and what it means for the European Union

The European Union’s relationship with Russia is strained, but the two economies are nevertheless highly intertwined. A huge share of Russia’s exports go to the EU, while in the early 2000s, EU countries supplied more than half of Russia’s imports. The EU is also a major investor in, and lender to, Russia.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Jianwei Xu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 6, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Bank resolution: consistency and predictability

Closed-door workshop on various aspects of bank resolution.

Speakers: Rebecca Christie, Jon Cunliffe, Martin J. Gruenberg, Elke König, Pamela Lintner, Martin Merlin, Maria Velentza, Nicolas Véron and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 29, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Europe: en finir avec la politique en silos

Projetée dans un monde de rapport de force dont les principaux protagonistes ne séparent pas géopolitique et économie, l’UE va devoir conduire un changement de logiciel culturel, une mutation organisationnelle et un rééquipement opérationnel, explique l’économiste Jean Pisani-Ferry.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 8, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

A fresh perspective on EU-Turkey relations: still a possibility?

Examining the mutual benefits of a EU-Turkey customs union.

Speakers: Zeynep Bodur Okyay, André Sapir, Sinan Ülgen and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 3, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Deep Focus: What's slowing the Mercosur agreement?

The EU-Mercosur has been 20 years in the making, but a hostile trading environment, unpredictable government and growing environmental concerns are putting it in peril. Is the deal worth fighting for and can it be saved? And could it become a casualty Brazil's forest fires?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 27, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Simple Rules for Better Fiscal Policies in Europe

Proposals to reform the euro area are on the agenda again. An overhaul of the complex set of European fiscal rules should be top priority on this agenda because the fiscal framework in place suffers from clearly identified problems: rules are complex (therefore difficult to internalise for policymakers), pro-cyclical (therefore potentially destabilising), and noncompliance is the norm (therefore not credible).

By: Zsolt Darvas, Xavier Ragot, Philippe Martin, Jean Beuve and Samuel Delpeuch Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 24, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Modernising European Competition Policy: A Brief Review of Member States’ Proposals

French, German and Polish governments have jointly proposed options for modernising EU competition policy. The debate to recalibrate European competition rules was already well underway. So, it is not surprising that proposals are consistent with other statements made by France and Germany. Yet, proposals do not address current issues weighing on the international competition community, such as conglomerate effects theory or algorithmic collusion.

By: Mathew Heim Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: July 24, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

EU policy recommendations: A stronger legal framework is not enough to foster national compliance

In 2011, the EU introduced stricter rules to monitor the implementation of country-specific policy recommendations. Using a new dataset, this column investigates whether these new laws have increased national compliance. There is no evidence that these stricter processes matter for implementation rates, whereas macroeconomic fundamentals and market pressure are important determinants of implementation progress. These results suggest ways to improve the effectiveness of European policy coordination that go beyond stronger legal processes.

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 23, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The EU needs a bold climate strategy

Scientists report that global temperature increases must be limited to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase and rising temperatures driving up the frequency of extreme weather events, the world needs a greater commitment to climate policy.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 19, 2019
Load more posts