Tag Archives: Europe

One Recession or Many? Double-Dip Downturns in Europe

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The recent release of a revised set of GDP statistics by Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed that growth had not quite, as previously thought, been negative for two consecutive quarters in the winter of 2011-12.  The point, as it was reported, was that a UK recession (a second dip after the Great Recession of 2008-09) was now erased from the history books — and that the Conservative government would take a bit of satisfaction from this fact.    But it should not.    

Similarly, in April of this year, Britain was reported to have narrowly escaped a second quarter of negative growth, and thereby escaped a triple dip recession.   But it could have saved itself the angst.

The right question is not whether there have been double or triple dips; the question is whether it has been the same one big recession all along.  As the British know all too well, their economy since the low-point of mid-2009 has not yet climbed even halfway out of the hole that it fell into in 2008:  GDP (Gross Domestic Product, which is aggregate national output) is still almost 4% below its previous peak, as the first graph shows.   If the criteria for determining recessions in European countries were similar to those used in the United States, the Great Recession would probably not have been declared over in 2009 in the first place.   

Recent reports that Ireland entered a new recession in early 2013 would also read differently if American criteria were applied.  Irish GDP since 2009 has not yet recovered more than half of the ground it lost between the peak of late-2007 and the bottom two years later.  Following US methods, the end would not yet have been declared to the initial big recession in Ireland.   As it is, a sequence of tentative mini-recoveries have been heralded, only to give way to “double-dips.” 

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Fear of Fracking: The Problem with the Precautionary Principle

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An amazing thing has happened over the last five years.   Against all expectations, American emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, since peaking in 2007, have fallen by 12%, back to 1995 levels.  (As of 2012. US Energy Information Agency).   How can this be?   The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol to cut emissions of greenhouse gases below 1997 levels by 2012, as Europe did.  

Was the achievement a side-effect of reduced economic activity?   It is true that the US economy peaked in late 2007, the same time as emissions.   But the US recession ended in June 2009 and GDP growth since then, though inadequate, has been substantially higher than Europe’s.  Yet US emissions continued to fall, while EU emissions began to rise again after 2009 (EU).  Something else is going on. 

The primary explanation, in a word, is “fracking.”   In fourteen words: the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to recover deposits of shale gas.  

One can virtually prove that shale gas is the major factor behind the fall in US emissions.  Natural gas, especially when burnt in combined-cycle gas turbine power plants, emits only half as much greenhouse gas (GHG) as coal.   Ten years ago domestic natural gas production appeared to be reaching its limits; the industry was so sure of this that it made big investments in terminals to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).  Yet the fracking revolution has increased the supply of natural gas so rapidly since then that liquefaction plants are now being built at LNG port sites in preparation for export.   Clean natural gas occupies a rapidly increasing share of the generation of electric power.   It has come largely at the expense of coal’s share.  Within power generation, natural gas is up 37% since 2007, while coal is down 25%.  As a result, natural gas has drawn close to coal as the number one source of US power — unthinkable a short time ago. Renewables have been rising, but still constitute only 5% of power generation in the US.  This is less than hydroelectric and far less than nuclear, let alone coal or gas.

Meanwhile, the role of coal – the dirtiest fuel — has been rising in the energy mix of the rest of the world, not falling (IEA, Dec. 2012).  Coal’s share of power has even risen since 2010 in Europe (EC), where some countries are phasing out emission-free nuclear power and no shale gas boom has appeared.    (The trans-Atlantic comparison does not offer grounds for self-righteousness, however.   GHG emissions remain far higher in the US than in Europe.)     

The advent of shale gas in the United States has had a variety of implications for the economy, national security, and the environment.  The implications are surely more good than bad. 

Short-run economic advantages include job creation.   Medium-run economic advantages include the “re-shoring” of some manufacturing activities.   Long-run advantages include reducing macroeconomic vulnerability to future global oil shocks such as those that led to serious recessions in the 1970s.  (It would be wrong to claim job creation as an advantage in the long-run.  Jobs that are created in the oil and gas sector would otherwise be created somewhere else.  But during the last five years of high unemployment, every new job has helped.) 

Moving beyond economics, the reduction in net energy imports is good for US national security.  What happens in the Middle East will still matter, but as oil imports fall American foreign policy will not be as constrained as in the past. US net oil imports have already fallen by half since 2007 and the downward trend is expected to continue, especially if one leaves aside imports from Canada.   In Europe, the new developments can help break Russia’s troublesome stranglehold on the supply of natural gas.

That leaves the environment.  Here as well the effects on net appear beneficial.   As already noted, the substitution of natural gas in place of coal slows global climate change. Indeed the United States is now on track to meet the Obama administration’s international commitment of emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  But natural gas is also better for local air quality.  Burning coal puts sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury and particulates into the air. 

Yet it is among environmentalists that heartfelt opposition to fracking has arisen.  Why?

Environmentalists seem to have three sets of fears.  First, they worry that shale gas will displace renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.  But the fact is that GHG emissions can’t be reduced without cutting coal emissions and that shale gas is already displacing coal in the USThis is not speculation about the future.  It has already been happening.  If renewables or fusion or something else currently unknown can take over after 2050, then great.  But we would still need natural gas as a bridge from here to there. 

Put differently, if the world continues to build coal-fired power plants at the rate it has been, those plants will still be around in 2050 regardless what other technologies have become available in the meantime.  Solar power can’t stop those coal fired plants from being built today.  Natural gas can. 

Cheap natural gas also helps with heating buildings and increasingly with transportation as well – particularly if electric plug-in cars become more widespread.  In overall primary energy production, natural gas at 31% has now surpassed coal, at 26%. The graph below shows the two lines crossing. (Table 1.2,  US EIA).  Solar and wind together account for only 2% of US primary energy production.  

Fracking Graph

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Can the Euro’s Fiscal Compact Cut Deficit Bias?

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     Europe’s fiscal compact went into effect January 1, as a result of its ratification December 21 by the 12th country, Finland, a year after German Chancellor Angela Merkel prodded eurozone leaders into agreement.   The compact (technically called the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union) requires  member countries to introduce laws limiting their structural government budget deficits to less than ½ % of GDP.  A limit on the “structural deficit” means that a country can run a deficit above the limit to the extent — and only to the extent — that the gap is cyclical, i.e., that its economy is operating below potential due to temporary negative shocks.   In other words, the target is cyclically adjusted.  The budget balance rule must be adopted in each country, preferably in their national constitutions, by the end of 2013.

    Will the new approach help?   The aim is to fix Europe’s long-term fiscal problem, which since the date of the euro’s inception has been evident in the failure of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), the crisis in Greece and other periphery countries that surfaced in 2010, and the various ways in which these countries were subsequently bailed out.  

     There is no reason to doubt that the eurozone countries will follow through to the extent of adopting the national rules by the end of the year.  [“The granting of new financial assistance under the European Stability Mechanism is conditional on ratification of the fiscal compact and transposition of the balanced budget rule into national legislation in due time.”]  But after that the fiscal compact will probably founder on precisely the same shoals as the SGP.

    Since the inception of the euro, its members have made official fiscal forecasts that are systematically biased in the optimistic direction.   Other countries do this too, but the bias among eurozone countries is, if anything, even worse than that elsewhere.  During a period of economic expansion, such as 2002-07, governments are tempted to forecast that the boom will continue indefinitely.  Forecasts for tax revenue and budget surpluses are correspondingly optimistic and so hide the need for adjustment of fiscal policies.  During a period of recession, such as 2008-2012, governments are tempted to forecast that their economies and budgets will soon rebound.  Since forecasting is subject to so much genuine uncertainty, nobody can prove that the forecasts are biased when they are made.

     Fiscal rules such as the SGP ceilings won’t constrain budget deficits, if forecasts are biased.  The reason is that governments can in any given year forecast that their growth rates, tax revenues, and budget balances will improve in the subsequent years, and then next year say that the shortfalls were unexpected.   Indeed, it turns out that the eurozone bias in official forecasts during 1999-2011 can be neatly characterized as responding to the SGP’s 3% limit on budget deficits by offering over-optimistic forecasts each time governments exceed the limit.  In other words, they adjust their forecasts rather than their policies.   (The results described here come from a new paper, coauthored with Jesse Schreger: Over-optimistic Official Forecasts and Fiscal Rules in the Eurozone,” forthcoming 2013 in the Review of World Economy, vol.149, no.2, from Germany’s Kiel Institute.)

    Phrasing the budget rules in cyclical terms, while highly desirable in terms of macroeconomic impact, does not help solve the problem of forecast bias.  It can even make it worse.  In a year when a forecast for the actual budget deficit turns out to have been over-optimistic, the government has to admit that it made a mistake, which can carry some embarrassment.  In a year when a forecast for the structural budget deficit turns out to have been over-optimistic, the government can still claim that its own calculations show the shortfall to have been cyclical rather than structural.   After all, estimation of potential output and hence the cyclical versus structural decomposition is notoriously, even after the fact.

   Will it help that under the fiscal compact the rules are to be adopted at the national level, as opposed to the supranational level on which the SGP operated?  A look at the various rules and institutions that have already been tried by European countries shows that some work and others don’t.  Creating an independent fiscal institution that provides its own independent budget forecasts works, in that it reduces the bias in projections.  Euro area governments with an independent budget forecasting institution have a mean bias when making forecasts while in violation of the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) that is smaller by 2.7% of GDP [at the one-year horizon], compared to euro area countries that are in violation of the EDP without such an independent fiscal institution.

    It would be better still if the governments were legally bound to use these independent forecasts in their budget plans (thereby borrowing an innovation from Chile).  

   Regardless how well-designed the rules are, clever and determined politicians can find ways around them.  One of the tricks is the privatization of government enterprises which reduces the budget deficit this year on a one-time non-repeatable basis, but might raise it in the long-term if the enterprise had been earning profits.  Another trick is phony legislated sunsets on tax cuts, in order to make future revenues look larger despite the political intention later to make the tax cuts permanent. 

   Still, other things equal, the right institutions can reduce the procyclicality of fiscal policy in the short run and help deliver debt sustainability in the long run.    Examples of the right institutions are cyclically adjusted budget targets combined with independent agencies that make independent fiscal forecasts.  Things can still go wrong even if such mechanisms are in place; but, as the history of the SGP illustrates, the risk is higher if they are not.

     [The original of this post appears at Project Syndicate.  Comments may be posted there.]

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