With Poland currently holding the EU Presidency, it has taken centre stage over the past week as the debt crisis in the eurozone intensifies.
During a debate at the EU parliament last Wednesday, the Polish Finance Minister - Jacek Rostowski - claimed that the crisis in the eurozone threatens the break up of the EU itself. He went on to warn that such an event could result in the outbreak of war in the continent within a decade and that he is 'really thinking about obtaining a green card for my kids in the United States'.
Such claims may be over emotive and exaggerated, but they do reveal the fears felt about the break up of the European project in Central Eastern Europe and other poorer states in the Union.
On Saturday, Economic and Finance Ministers and the European Central Bank met in the Polish city of Wrocław to discuss the current EU crisis. The situation is deemed so serious that the U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner joined the discussions. They were also greeted by a demonstration of up to 50,000 trade unionists, protesting against low wages and unemployment.
Opinions on dealing with the crisis range from increasing help for the so-called periphery economies and issuing eurobonds (alongside imposing further austeriy measures upon these countries) to allowing for the break up of the eurozone as these countries default on their debts. However, neither of these options addresses the fundamental problem facing the European economies today and at how this can be resolved. This can only be done through reversing the collapse in fixed investment that has accounted for the total economic contraction in Europe over the past couple of years.
The international financial system is passing through the agony of a new round of the Eurozone debt crisis for the simple reason that European governments, like that in the US, refuse to deal with the core of the economic recession in Europe for reasons of economic dogma.
Anyone who looks at the economic data for the Eurozone without wearing ideological blinkers can see the situation at once – it is charted in Figure 1. The Eurozone recession is due to a collapse in fixed investment. Taking OECD data, at inflation adjusted prices and fixed parity purchasing powers (PPPs), then between the last quarter before the recession, the 1st quarter of 2008, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 Eurozone GDP fell by $204bn. But private consumption declined by only $29bn while the net trade balance increased by $32bn and government consumption rose by $91bn.
However fixed investment fell by $290bn – i.e. the recession in the Eurozone was wholly due to the fixed investment decline
Equally evidently, due to its scale, until this fall in investment is reversed it will take a prolonged period for the recession to be overcome. Therefore to restore growth, which by now is generally realised is the core to turning round the budget deficit problem, the fixed investment decline must be overcome.
Nor is there anything mysterious about how to do this – the state has entirely adequate means. To take the most decisive international case China made the core of its stimulus package direct state investment particularly aimed at infrastructure and housing – the result being that China’s economy has grown by over thirty per cent in three years.
Europe and the US clearly do not have the scale of state sector, nor the political willingness, to act on the scale China did. But US history shows that even without proceeding to a socialist scale of measures direct state intervention on investment is entirely possible.
Roosevelt expanded US state investment from 3.4% of GDP to 5.0% between 1933 and 1936 (data from US Bureau of Economic Analysis Table 1.5.5). Jason Scott Smith, in his study of New Deal public spending, summarises such investment as including 480 airports, 78,000 bridges, 572,000 miles of highway - which, in addition to its immediate effect in stimulating demand, reinforced the productive position of the US economy. Roosevelt, it is superfluous to point out, was neither a socialist nor a communist (despite claims to the contrary by the US right!).
Quarterly, up to date, data is regrettably not available on what is occurring across the Eurozone for state investment, but it is available for the US and there is no reason to suppose, with current policies, that the situation in Europe is any better. Between the peak of the previous US business cycle, in the 4th quarter of 2007, and the 2nd quarter of 2011 US private fixed investment fell from 15.8% of GDP to 12.2% - i.e. a decline of 3.6% of GDP. Yet in the same period US state investment did not compensate but also fell marginally – from 3.3% of GDP to 3.2% of GDP. Therefore while Roosevelt expanded the weight of US state investment current US administrations have been letting it fall.
Instead of directly addressing the core issue of the investment fall European administrations are either attempting to stimulate it indirectly – which, as it is ineffective, has led to fiscal/sovereign debt crises, or are acting via expansion of the money supply – which, in a situation whereby companies and households are paying down debt, is merely the famous ‘pushing on a piece of string’. The most favourable outcome of such a situation is that eventually the debt will be paid down, but only after several years of stagnation. The less favourable variant, of course, is that the banking system breaks under the strain and renewed recession is further propelled by fiscal cutbacks. All these problems simply arise from the fact that, under the rubric of the dogma ‘private equals good, state equals bad’, European governments refuse to use the state tools available to deal with the investment fall which is at the core of the Eurozone recession.
Some European politicians are now beginning to call for state measures to increase investment, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable being one. But the action they envisage so far is inadequate to deal with the scale of the investment fall.
China's economy, which does not have such ideological inhibitions, will continue to expand while the Eurozone remains relatively stagnant for a significant period - and as long as economic stagnation continues there will be no resolving of the Eurozone debt crisis.