The European Central Bank Mistake: More Debt Is Not the Answer

October 11, 2020 Updated: October 14, 2020

Commentary

In an opinion article published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Isabel Schnabel, member of the executive board of the European Central Bank (ECB), states that governments taking more debt now shouldn’t be a concern, and that it will strengthen the central bank independence in the future.

She claims that “the decisive fiscal policy intervention in the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis strengthens the effectiveness of monetary policy and mitigates the long-term costs of the pandemic. With targeted, forward-looking investment, not least under the umbrella of the EU Recovery Fund, governments can foster sustainable growth, increase long-term competitiveness and facilitate the necessary reduction of the debt ratio once the crisis has been overcome.”

The problem with Schnabel’s article is that it ignores the facts and bets the future of the central bank’s independence on a rigorous, profitable, and successful level of government investment that has never happened and is even less likely to occur now.

Schnabel should be, in fact, warning about the enormous risk of malinvestment and excessive debt that may arise from the European Recovery Fund implementation and the massive deficit spending arising throughout the eurozone. Why? Because she has the empirical evidence of the failure to achieve the virtuous growth and debt reduction she expects with the examples of the Growth and Jobs Plan of 2009, the Juncker plan, and the enormous rise in deficit spending between 2009 and 2011 among many European nations.

Once growth recovered, three things were evident:

  • Most eurozone countries maintained a level of deficit spending that elevated the debt-to-GDP ratio during growth and recession periods, because governments get used to spending more in boom times and even more in recession times. Schnabel expects of the eurozone governments a level of discipline and fiscal prudence that only Germany and Holland implemented. With the budgets of Spain and Italy soaring without control, the idea that governments will spend money wisely and productively isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s negated by the evidence of the past.
  • The debt burden created by the “decisive fiscal policies” in recession times not only stays and grows but also leads to rising taxes afterward to “reduce the deficit,” which hinders growth and job creation. The eurozone already suffers from an uncompetitive tax wedge in many countries, and unproductive deficit spending followed by taxes on investment and job creation has become the norm. Eurozone growth has been slower and with higher unemployment than the United States not due to bad luck but because of the constant crowding out of wealth and productive capacity on the part of many governments.
  • Schnabel should know by now, after years of stimuli, that governments don’t “foster sustainable growth” and “increase long-term competitiveness.” In her article, she mentions that productivity growth has been stubbornly weak, yet she doesn’t see any connection between low productivity and the increasing role of government spending and monetary policy in incentivizing low productivity via negative rates and public intervention. Government investment can’t boost growth and competitiveness enough to cover the massive debt burden that’s being built, because governments don’t have the incentive to be productive and generate investments with real economic returns. The incentive to malinvest and perpetuate overcapacity is enormous because governments don’t suffer the consequences of bad investment decisions, taxpayers do.

Schnabel knows that the experience of previous crises shows us that no, in times of weakness, governments shouldn’t decide to supplant the private sector. Governments don’t have better or more information than the private sector on where and how to invest, and they have all the incentives to malinvest and overspend because the ECB continues to support by buying sovereign bonds and cutting rates. For the eurozone, the evidence of rising debt, poor productivity, and higher unemployment than its peers should be enough of a warning sign, and the example of Japan should serve as a red flag as well.

Schnabel knows that the elevated levels of debt to GDP incurred by most eurozone countries will not be reduced to pre-pandemic levels, even less to sustainable levels, with constant public deficit spending promoted by monetary policy and with calls for questionable “investments.”

Schnabel may ask herself one question: If all those massive “investments” that some eurozone governments are announcing are profitable, productive, and will promote long-term growth and jobs, why had none of them been implemented in the 2014–2019 period, despite low rates, high liquidity, and the Juncker plan to support? Because the vast majority of what most eurozone countries will include in the “investment” recovery plan aren’t productive, profitable, or growth-oriented projects.

Schnabel should know that many eurozone countries such as Spain have relied on monetary policy to disguise structural challenges, and that monetary policy has gone from being a tool to buy time to implement structural reforms to a tool to avoid them.

Schnabel should also know that the euro isn’t the world reserve currency, and that replicating the Federal Reserve’s policy doesn’t make governments spend wisely and productively. The ECB balance sheet is now 57 percent of GDP, and negative rates have been there for years; the result has been disappointing growth in the good times and a larger crisis in the bad times. The rising role of governments in the economy isn’t a coincidence. It’s one of the leading causes of the eurozone’s weakness, when governments already consume more than 40 percent of annual GDP.

The evidence of the past shows us that governments don’t create jobs, growth, or competitiveness. A 2011 International Monetary Fund working paper analyzing government spending plans concluded that “the effect of government consumption is very small on impact, with estimates clustered close to zero … which raises questions as to the usefulness of discretionary fiscal policy for short-run stabilization purposes.” The eurozone has shown that negligible positive impact for years.

The ECB will not strengthen its independence with large deficit spending and massive debt from member states. It will be even more dependent on disguising the insolvency of countries once, when COVID-19 stops being an excuse, debt and government spending will continue to rise.

Daniel Lacalle, Ph.D., is chief economist at hedge fund Tressis and author of “Freedom or Equality,” “Escape from the Central Bank Trap,” and “Life in the Financial Markets.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.