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April 17, 2019

Why it is far from clear that the grand coalition will survive the year

This is our last briefing before the Easter break. The next briefing will appear on Tuesday, April 23.

After the Easter break the EU will quickly enter into a frantic period of unusually dense political activity. Apart from the European elections, there will be national elections in Spain, Belgium and several other member states. EU leaders will nominate the presidents of three important institutions - European Commission, Council and Central Bank. We fear that the much-deserved Brexit pause will end with a vengeance sooner than we like. The political and economic situation in Italy remains unstable, with the potential for a release after the European elections. And Donald Trump has yet to make his decision on whether to slap tariffs on European car imports. 

Yet, a potentially big issue very few people have on their radar screen right now is the future of the German grand coalition. We don't like to attach probabilities to future outcomes, but the survival chances of the coalition beyond the end of the year must be pretty close to a coin toss.

FAZ offers a very thorough analysis of it this morning. The authors note that Angela Merkel is not getting involved in the European election campaign at all - very much to the concern of the CDU. Is this a sign of fatigue? 

They argue that, in theory, the SPD was always considered most likely to pull the plug on the coalition during the mid-term review, scheduled to take place at a party conference in December. The SPD ministers, all eager to stay in their jobs, will defend their work. But there are forces in the party, not only on the left, who fear a repeat of what happened last time: the SPD got most of what it wanted in the first two years. Encouraged by its early successes the SPD decided to hang on, only to find that the CDU subsequently blocked everything, and won the next election.

However, the authors arrive at the interesting conclusion that the biggest risk factor for an end of the coalition is neither the SPD, nor the CDU or the CSU, but Merkel herself. Since the SPD said it would only stay in the coalition with Merkel personally, not with AKK, it is fairly clear that an early departure by Merkel - for whatever reason - would force a premature end of the coalition. AKK has also set her eyes on a coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Such a coalition could, in theory, come about without elections. There are no technical reasons why the Bundestag would need to be dissolved, as the three parties have a majority. But the mechanism is going to be different. If Merkel resigns, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will propose AKK has her successor. If the Bundestag withholds support, elections become very probable. The Greens would certainly want to capitalise on their new popularity. And AKK may also want a mandate of her own. 

The article does not discuss in detail why Merkel would want to leave prematurely. Is she simply willing to hand over power as part of an orderly transition? Is she perhaps still angling for the European Council, as has been rumoured from time to time? She may have other plans. 

The one scenario where the SPD could pull the plug would be a disappointing result in the upcoming European elections. If the SPD does badly - say, 15% or less - its leadership may face calls to end the coalition immediately. In that case, we would also expect a debate about the party leadership to resurface.

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April 17, 2019

Macron's chance and challenge

The devastating fire of Notre Dame changed the scenery for Emmanuel Macron. Instead of tensions over how to respond to the gilets jaunes there is a climate of national unity amid the destruction of their common cathedral, as Jean Luc Mélenchon put it. Notre Dame has held a prominent place over more than 800 years of French history. Political parties stopped their European campaigning this week, and their bickering against the government came to a halt. 

This was not the moment for Macron to address the nation with his catalogue of measures in response to the grand débat, even if those measures leaked through yesterday. Instead Macron called on the French last night to unite over a national project to rebuild Notre Dame within five years. We can do it, was his message of hope. History never stops and the French are a nation of great builders.

A moment of national unity like this is rare and could help the president to a smoother exit from the grand débat, writes Stéphane Dupont. Such a moment won't last long, though. And it brings with it another challenge, namely to build an even larger consensus beyond the grand débat. The solidarity around rebuilding Notre Dame already led to €700m in pledges from billionaires, companies, national and international donors, small and large. Everyone according to their means, said Macron. But social tensions are already appearing. On social media, radicals have already attacked the rich for spending money on stones rather than helping the poor. 

As for the grand débat measures that leaked out yesterday, it was a predictable mix of the expected and, to a much lesser extent, the unexpected. The catalogue includes some tax cuts for the middle classes, indexing small pensions to inflation, popular referendums at local level, and - as the one sensational item - the abolition of the elite administration school ENA. On the agenda is also a moratorium of school and hospital closures for five years period, and a new decentralisation law. As for the ecological transition, the proposal is for a convention of 300 citizens to work on concrete reform proposals. There is not much on the financing side, except some unspecified niche tax that will be abolished. 

The president warned yesterday that it is not the time to talk about the grand débat measures now and that he will not be rushed into doing so. Nothing is now expected before Easter. But what will come after that? In this new context, will he just reframe the content or go back to the drawing board to address a new and wider consensus? It is a great challenge but also a great opportunity for Macron to re-emerge as a strong president, one who unites rather than divides.

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April 17, 2019

Eurozone firms' surprising response to sagging profits

Even if domestic demand is keeping a recession at bay, not all is well with the structure of the eurozone economy. We noted that André Kühnlenz (@Keinewunder) tweeted some unsettling figures about non-financial sector profits, so we decided to take a closer look. The reduction in profit growth turns out to have been at the expense of dividends and foreign direct investment, with a lot of room still to go. This may also explain the ECB's puzzlement about firms not raising prices in response to the profit squeeze.

Kühnlenz observes that investment growth in the eurozone (excluding Germany and Ireland) has held remarkably steady at about 2% yoy for the past two years. What unsettled him was the fact that the growth rate of non-financial corporations' operating profit has declined nearly as much over the past thirty months or so as it did during the double-dip recession in 2011-12. Back then, at about the current level of profit growth, investment growth took a sharp turn, and the economy went into recession. Are we in for a repeat of that?  

To shed some light on this we looked at Eurostat's national account data for the nonfinancial-firms sector. What we find is the following. Even though entrepreneurial income has indeed been declining over the past couple of years as a fraction of GDP, the eurozone's non-financial sector is still running a sizeable financial surplus of about 3% of GDP. This is currently being reduced, but on a par with the previous soft patch seen in 2016. What firms are reducing, as their profit growth slows down, is dividend distribution and foreign direct investment, which nevertheless are still running at over 20% of GDP. This is consistent with what we know about the reduction in the current account surplus - the eurozone is investing less abroad than it did a year ago. Still, fixed capital formation is about half of what it was at the peak of the pre-crisis cycle.

Other charts from the same Eurostat data show that non-financial corporations are still deleveraging - there is a reduction in net issuance of new equity, and in net incurrence of new loans or other liabilities (which includes bonds). And the net financial wealth of the eurozone's nonfinancial-firms sector is on an upwards trend since the double-dip recession.  

We also looked at what the ECB's bank lending survey says about non-financial firms' loan demand. We know from Eurostat that net incurrence of loans is negative. According to the bank lending survey, firms' demand for loans was stable in the first quarter of this year, though this is down from strong demand growth peaking at the end of 2017. We observe loan demand growth has been negative in Spain for a year, in Italy this last quarter, and sluggish in France, but this is balanced by stronger loan demand in Germany and the Netherlands. 

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April 17, 2019

The result of Spain's elections, a riddle wrapped in mystery

Spanish elections have developed a habit of complete unpredictability as to their political outcome, and none more so than the upcoming national vote on April 28.

Vox, the new far-right party that has burst onto the national scene, is credited with a good tenth of the vote. A fifth is predicted to go to the People’s Party and under 30% to the Socialists. This adds up to half of the vote going to the duopoly that dominated Spain’s modern politics before corruption scandals and the huge financial and economic crisis blew the old system apart. The other two players to have emerged on Spain’s political scene since then, the liberal-conservative Ciudadanos and the left-wing Podemos, are credited with 15% and under 14% respectively. Podemos, which once hoped to overtake the PSOE when it rose to political prominence four years ago, has been riven by infighting over political strategy and personality clashes. Ciudadanos too once led the polls but is increasingly beset with tensions. These follow the controversial rejection by Albert Rivera, the party leader, of a government coalition with the Socialists so long as Pedro Sánchez, PM in the current minority government, continues to lead them.

In that fragmented and shifting landscape three deeply emotional, politically near-intractable, issues stand out. There is the unresolved conflict over Catalonia: how to deal with separatist political forces, and whether to expand, curtail, or leave unchanged the province’s autonomy, with the trials of separatist leaders due to start before the Supreme Court. There is the equally unresolved, deeply polarising matter of Francisco Franco’s place in Spanish history and historical memory. And there is the fresh reality of Spain having become the main entry point for migration from Africa following the new tough anti-migrant policy of Matteo Salvini’s Italy. To this mix one must add the continuing fallout from Spain’s recent great economic and social crisis. The recovery from it is underway, and reality, perception and outlook are better than four years ago. But the scars remain, and the popular anger that once fuelled the rise of Podemos has now made Vox a national player.

Against such a background, the prediction as to what government - majority, minority government or some other outcome - might result is literally anybody's guess. A protracted parliamentary stalemate after the election is one development many observers see as most likely, possibly leading to the failure to form a new government, with new elections resulting as happened three years ago.

The one prediction we feel we can make is that Spain's history of painful self-involvement, coupled with a singular absenteeism from the wider European debate, looks very much set to be continued. There have been voices in Madrid, among them Josep Borrell, the current foreign minister, who have mentioned the possibility of Spain becoming a bigger player on the European scene post-Brexit. But so long as Catalan separatism is politically and judicially treated as sedition by the Spanish State, and so long as Spain has not come to a stronger national consensus over the decades of dictatorship that preceded its current democracy, our hunch is that Spain's voice in Europe will continue to be muted.

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April 17, 2019

The MMT debate is coming to Europe - and Germany

We take Peter Bofinger's latest contribution to the Social Europe journal as evidence that the debate on Modern Money Theory (MMT) is definitely coming to Europe from the US, where it is raging on the left of the Democratic party. He takes what he calls a sober look at the core of MMT and finds that, theoretically, it can be reconciled with standard macroeconomic principles; while practically, it is not that different from what Japan has been doing.

Bofinger's summary of what MMT is about boils down to this: central banks not only can but should directly fund governments. The question is just by how much, in order to limit inflationary pressures. He points out that not only Japan but also China, and in the aftermath of the great recession the US and the UK, have combined expansionary fiscal and monetary policies without runaway inflation.

The proposition may be more or less controversial in these countries, but it seems to us to be beyond the pale in the eurozone. Not only is overt monetary financing forbidden in the treaties. The ECB is also regularly, if unsuccessfully, challenged in the courts for doing it covertly. Even if the eurozone were to acquire a central fiscal capacity, it is likely that any attempt at the kind of coordination of fiscal and monetary policy that takes place in other major economies would be challenged in the courts, possibly successfully. For instance, ECJ rulings on ECB asset purchases could be interpreted as forbidding the central bank from capping public-sector bond yields, or from buying more than half of the outstanding.   

On MMT itself, Bofinger proposes that it should be possible to reach a consensus between mainstream New Keynesians and proponents of MMT on two ideas: that combining fiscal stimulus and monetary expansion would be a powerful tool at times of low inflation, and functional finance - the idea that fiscal policy should be judged by its effects on the real economy, not on adherence to notions of soundness (such as fiscal rules). But anyone who has been following the MMT debate will be aware of Paul Krugman's attacks on functional finance, or the criticism of MMT as dangerous nonsense coming from the likes of Kenneth Rogoff or Larry Summers. On the practical side, there have been loud protestations from Haruhiko Kuroda, Japan's central banker, that what Japan is doing is most definitely not MMT. Given his sober look, Bofinger wonders why there should be so much hostility.

We would also argue that, by publishing his piece in English on the Social Europe journal, Bofinger is addressing European social-democratic circles. It would be really interesting if an economist as prominent as Bofinger - a member of the German council of economic experts until a few weeks ago - were to bring MMT into the German domestic debate, in German. From a journalistic perspective, Mark Schieritz is already doing this in Die Zeit. In his latest column, he argues for the need for Germany to invest more and abandon its austerity policies. He draws from Stephanie Kelton, one of the most prominent academic proponents of MMT in the US. Schieritz argues that accumulating claims to paper wealth does not increase well-being, something that appears to be necessary to point out in present-day Germany.

Miguel Carrión writes: Peter Bofinger misses a trick when he says the issue with MMT is the amount of monetary financing, and at the same time explicitly avoids discussing the key MMT policy proposal of a job guarantee. Sizing stimulus is an issue with conventional Keynesian pump-priming, but less so with the job guarantee. The job guarantee uses public funds directly to reduce the labour slack in the economy, and by design the fiscal stimulus stops when there is no more labour slack.

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April 17, 2019

Greek parliament seeks German war reparations

The Greek parliament will debate today war reparations claims on Germany, after the assembly's committee report suggested that the government should:

"take all the necessary diplomatic and legal action in order to claim and fully satisfy all the demands of the Greek state for World War I and II."

The committee's proposal has the backing of Syriza, New Democracy, the centrist Movement for Change and the Union of Centrists, according to Kathimerini. Parliament speaker Nikos Voutsis said the Greek government has the duty to issue a diplomatic note verbale to the German government, the first step in demanding reparations according to international law. The size of the claims is unclear. The report refers to a study by a committee of the State Audit Council which estimates something between €270bn and €309bn. 

Syriza pushed the subject of German war reparations already before coming to power. Why is this coming up in parliament now? Voutsis said that the government did not want to appear as if it was trying to trade off its debts to international creditors for the compensation claims. But there are also elections coming up this autumn, and this subject will be popular with voters. Berlin has always denied that there are any pending war reparation issues with Greece.

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