To understand the significance of yesterday's speech (useful extract from FT Alphaville here), it is crucial to know the background. The ECB has appeared to be in the past a centre of what Paul De Grauwe calls balanced-budget fundamentalism. I defined this as a belief that we needed fiscal consolidation (austerity) even when we were in a liquidity trap (i.e. interest rates were at or very close to their zero lower bound). Traditionally ECB briefings would not be complete without a ritual call for governments to undertake structural reforms and to continue with fiscal consolidation.
An important point about these calls from the central bank for fiscal consolidation is that they predate the 2010 Eurozone crisis. As I noted in an earlier post, the ECB’s own research found that “the ECB communicates intensively on fiscal policies in both positive as well as normative terms. Other central banks more typically refer to fiscal policy when describing foreign developments relevant to domestic macroeconomic developments, when using fiscal policy as input to forecasts, or when referring to the use of government debt instruments in monetary policy operations.” The other point to note, of course, is that the ECB had in the past always called for fiscal consolidation, whatever the macroeconomic situation.
How can we explain both this obsession with fiscal consolidation, and the ECB’s lack of inhibition in its public statements? I suspect some might argue that the ECB feels especially vulnerable to fiscal dominance - the idea that fiscal profligacy will force the monetary authority to print money to cover deficits. In my earlier post I suggested this was not plausible, because in reality the ECB was less vulnerable in this respect than other central banks. Unfortunately I think the true explanation is rather simpler, and we get an indication from the Draghi speech. There he says:
“Thus, it would be helpful for the overall stance of policy if fiscal policy could play a greater role alongside monetary policy, and I believe there is scope for this, while taking into account our specific initial conditions and legal constraints. These initial conditions include levels of government expenditure and taxation in the euro area that are, in relation to GDP, already among the highest in the world. And we are operating within a set of fiscal rules – the Stability and Growth Pact – which acts as an anchor for confidence and that would be self-defeating to break.”
The big news is the first sentence, which suggests that Draghi does not (at least now) believe in balanced-budget fundamentalism. Instead this speech follows the line taken by Ben Bernanke, who made public his view that fiscal consolidation in the US was not helping the Fed do its job (and who was quite unjustifiably criticised in some quarters for doing so). However note also the second sentence, which clearly implies that the size of the state in Euro area countries is too large. Whether you believe this to be true or not, it is an overtly political statement. I think part of the problem is that Draghi and the ECB as a whole do not see it as such - instead they believe that large states simply generate economic inefficiencies, so calling for less government spending and taxation is similar to calling for other ‘structural reforms’ designed to improve efficiency and growth.
The simple explanation for the ECB’s obsession, until now, with fiscal consolidation is that its members take the neoliberal position as self evident, and that their lack of accountability to the democratic process allows them to believe this is not political.
As a result, it might be possible to argue that the ECB never believed in balanced-budget fundamentalism, but instead kept on calling for fiscal consolidation after the Great Recession through a combination of zero lower bound denial, panic after the debt funding crisis, and a belief that achieving a smaller state remained an important priority. It is hard to believe that members of the ECB, unlike other central banks, were unaware of the substantial literature confirming that fiscal policy is contractionary: there does not seem to be any difference in educational or professional backgrounds between members of the ECB and Fed, for example.
Should we celebrate the fact that Draghi is now changing the ECB’s tune, and calling for fiscal expansion? The answer is of course yes, because it may begin to break the hold of balanced-budget fundamentalism on the rest of the policy making elite in the Eurozone. However we also need to recognise its limitations and dangers. As the third sentence of the quote above indicates, Draghi is only talking about flexibility within the Stability and Growth Pact rules, and these rules are the big problem.
The danger comes from the belief that the size of the state should be reduced. Whether this is right or not, it leads Draghi later on in his speech to advocate balanced budget cuts in taxes. He says: “This strategy could have positive effects even in the short-term if taxes are lowered in those areas where the short-term fiscal multiplier is higher, and expenditures cut in unproductive areas where the multiplier is lower.” My worry is that in reality such combinations are hard to find, and that what we might get instead is the more conventional balanced budget multiplier, which will make things worse rather than better.