The Competitiveness Crisis

The Competitiveness Crisis

The recent news from Europe could hardly be more unsettling for those who desperately wanted to believe that the eurozone was finally finding its way out of the region’s imbroglio. The collapse of the Dutch coalition government over budget cuts dramatically called into question the commitment of the staunchest supporter of the German hard line on the need for fiscal austerity. On the same day, the National Front, whose platform calls for an exit from the euro, gained a record 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential elections. And the results confirmed François Hollande, who wants to renegotiate the European Union’s recent German-inspired fiscal pact to create room for growth policies, as a firm favorite to wrest the presidency from Nicolas Sarkozy. Not surprisingly, markets retreated and troubled countries such as Italy, Spain, and France itself saw their borrowing costs soar.

Indeed, every time Italy and Spain — two of the world’s largest economies, with a combined government debt that exceeds $3.5 trillion — struggle to refinance their debt at acceptable interest rates, the eurozone and the global economy flirt with disaster. Yet while the commotion over bond spreads is entirely justified, it diverts attention from the main arena where the survival of the euro will ultimately be decided: the realignment of Europe’s peripheral economies (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, or the “GIIPS”) toward exports and import substitutes (think Spaniards buying fewer Japanese cars and more Spanish-made cars). Since domestic demand in the periphery is declining fast as finance dries up and budgets shrink, trade is the only hope for reigniting sustained growth in the region. Without growth, unemployment will keep rising from its extraordinarily high levels, political resistance to the monetary union will escalate, and it will become more and more difficult to service debts, with the very real risk that countries will be forced into default and — possibly — an exit from the euro.

Until recently, improved global economic conditions and large-scale liquidity injections by the European Central Bank (ECB) into European banks under its long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) program had reassured markets and kept Italian and Spanish bond yields well below their terrifying peak of last November. Global conditions can change quickly, however, and the policies adopted, however necessary they may have been, are more palliative than cure.

For example, Greece’s debt remains unsustainable, and a second round of restructuring — this time to include forgiving official debt as well as private debt — will be needed. And the ECB’s LTROs, which have so far shored up banks and supported government bond purchases, may backfire if, as is already happening, risk aversion returns and the prices of government bonds that banks have acquired fall again. While the periphery cannot avoid cutting government deficits, it may ultimately have trouble hitting its deficit targets if austerity stunts growth.

More important still, it is vital to recognize that the periphery’s fiscal mess is not at the root of the euro crisis. The crisis, in other words, cannot be resolved with a fiscal fix alone, although a fiscal correction must be part of the solution. For example, Ireland almost halved its debt-to-GDP ratio (from 48 percent to 25 percent) between 1999 and 2007 and Spain nearly did the same (62 percent to 36 percent). These ratios were much lower than Germany’s at the outbreak of the current crisis and, in Spain’s case, they still are. Nor are weak banking systems the cause of the crisis in the periphery. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, for instance, the Italian and Portuguese banking systems were in much better shape than their British, French, or German counterparts. Fiscal and banking problems, dangerous as they are, are a consequence of the crisis — not their primary cause.

Fundamentally, Europe’s so-called debt crisis is really more of a competitiveness crisis — one that divides the eurozone’s core (Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Finland, and the Netherlands) from its periphery. The misalignment began in the mid-1990s as interest rates in the periphery declined to the lower levels found in the core, and domestic demand and inflation grew more rapidly in the periphery than in the core. This, combined with highly inflexible labor markets and limited competition in sectors ranging from pharmacies to banks, led to an erosion of competitiveness in the periphery — reflected in wages outpacing productivity and prices in the sheltered sector (comprising everything from government to construction to coffee and barber shops) rising relative to the prices of exports and import substitutes, whose prices are determined in world markets. There followed a progressive reallocation of the periphery’s production capacity toward the sheltered sector, most visibly toward construction in countries such as Ireland and Spain, which went on to experience the mother of all housing bubbles. Measures and estimates of the competitive misalignment in the eurozone vary. Typical estimates suggest that, in the periphery, the cost of labor, adjusted for productivity, is higher by 15 to 30 percent relative to Germany.

This competitive misalignment had significant consequences. From 1997 to 2007, housing expenditure as a share of GDP cumulatively increased by 2.7 percentage points in the periphery (excluding Greece, for which data is not available prior to 2000), compared with a 2.2 percentage-point decline in Germany. Meanwhile, exports of goods and services as a share of GDP increased by almost 20 percentage points in Germany, compared with an increase of less than 3 percentage points, on average, in the periphery. In the periphery, current account deficits – the excess of imports over exports – deteriorated by nearly 8 percentage points of GDP. In the core, current account surpluses rose by 0.9 percentage points.

Financial markets mistakenly supported the periphery’s domestic demand-based growth model, only to go into sharp reverse — as they are wont to do — when the model became patently unsustainable. Greece and Ireland, for example, experienced capital outflows equivalent to 40 percent and 70 percent of 2007 GDP, respectively, from mid-2008 to mid-2011. Current account deficits in peripheral economies did not narrow correspondingly because euros were made available through the intra-European payment system among central banks and rescue programs. Outside the eurozone, by contrast, countries such as Latvia (which did not devalue its currency) saw a huge and immediate correction in their current account deficits. The workings of the monetary union, in other words, have inhibited the eurozone’s ability to narrow the very competitiveness gap that the monetary union helped create.

The external and internal imbalances in the periphery still necessitate a large competitive adjustment that can only occur through deflation, since adoption of the single currency means that devaluation is no longer an option. Given the post-2007 plunge in domestic demand in the periphery, one would have expected to see price and unit labor cost containment (either through lower wages or higher productivity) and a shift toward exports by now. But almost  three years after the euro crisis erupted, progress remains remarkably limited (see table). With the exception of Ireland, there has been little improvement in the competitiveness of the periphery (as measured by the decline in the real effective exchange rate, an indicator of labor cost adjusted for productivity and expressed in a common currency).

In fact, over the last year, the periphery has actually lost even more competitiveness relative to the core. These trends are reflected in the periphery’s exports, which have hardly budged as a share of GDP, increasing by less than in Germany and the Netherlands. Italy’s current account deficit has actually increased since the global financial crisis began. And while current account deficits have come down elsewhere in the periphery, this is largely due demand contraction, and the external deficits remain sizable (see chart). Greece is running a current account deficit that is 10 percent of GDP and showing no improvement in exports despite an 18 percent decline in domestic demand since 2007. Over the past year, the most notable changes that have occurred are further increases in the periphery’s unemployment rate and (Italy excepted) government debt-to-GDP ratio.

More demand compression and recession are coming, and will place even more strain on the periphery’s social fabric. Unemployment is excruciatingly high and headed in the wrong direction. The unemployment rate is already at around 24 percent in Spain, 21 percent in Greece, 15 percent in Portugal and Ireland, and 9.3 percent — and rising fast — in Italy.

With substantial fiscal contraction in store over the next two years, banks deleveraging, and consumers and investors scared, there is simply no possibility of growth from domestic demand in the periphery in the foreseeable future. Indeed, with structural reforms incomplete and slow to produce results, recession — in containing wages and inflation — is the main instrument to engineer the competitive realignment. And in economies where both the private and public sector have become highly externally indebted and competitiveness hasn’t improved, any recovery of domestic demand will quickly run up against borrowing constraints as current account deficits widen.

In these dire circumstances, can the trade sector come to the rescue?

This currently appears least likely in Greece because its export sector is small and mostly based on tourism. Portugal has a bigger export sector, but one that still confronts Chinese competitors directly in sectors such as footwear and garments. Ireland, by contrast, has high-tech exports that amount to 100 percent of GDP and are funded and operated by foreign multinationals. For these reasons, Ireland has a chance of reigniting growth, but it may be hit again by large banking losses.

Spain, meanwhile, has several competitive international firms and, unlike the other peripheral countries, has maintained its share of European exports over the past decade. But its export sector is small at roughly 26 percent of GDP, its private sector is heavily and externally indebted, its unemployment is already extremely high, and its fiscal and housing sectors still require enormous adjustments. Spain’s capacity to steer through more austerity is therefore questionable.

While Italy’s public debt is larger than Spain’s, it has a more diversified export base and smaller fiscal, housing, and labor market imbalances. Italy’s austerity and liberalization measures, however, are still very recent, and there is no sign yet of a trade-led recovery.

How should Europe address these challenges? As many economists are advocating, a €2 trillion firewall could be erected to protect Italy and Spain, the ECB could provide unlimited support to governments, and eurozone governments could even jointly issue eurobonds that would be less liable to attack than those of individual countries. Yet even if the resolute German political resistance to these measures could conceivably be overcome in the event of a market panic, none of these approaches would deal with the underlying competitiveness issue, and could instead delay its resolution.

In any event, the political stars are not aligned at present for these ambitious steps and there is little alternative but to accelerate the adjustment process in the periphery through small steps. These could include tax changes that incentivize production and exports (such as cutting payroll taxes) and discourage consumption and imports (such as increasing value-added taxes), and more far-reaching labor and product market reforms such as reducing severance payments drastically and attacking price fixing with more determination. A less ideological approach to policy by Germany and less insistence on blanket austerity measures even in relatively healthy economies could also stoke demand in the eurozone’s core, increase eurozone inflation, and lower the value of the euro, all of which would ease adjustment in the periphery.

If, however, all this and fiscal cuts are not enough to restore competitiveness in the periphery — as has so far been the case — and unemployment keeps climbing, new approaches must be considered. Should failing countries be assisted by healthier ones in the core, the ECB, and the IMF to restructure their debt and leave the eurozone? The complexity of doing so is daunting and great collateral damage would ensue, but there would at least be a light at the end of the tunnel. The alternative — depression, chronic unemployment, deindustrialization, and depopulation of the afflicted countries, plus even more concentration of industry in northern Europe — is not what anyone signed up for, or what electorates will accept.