[NOTE: The second part of this analysis is posted in the next post: Eurozone Government Debt and Current Account Deficits]
In my previous post discussing the recent EU "fiscal union" summit, I said:
You'll notice that Spain and Ireland were running fiscal surpluses with acceptable debt/GDP in the years immediately preceding the financial crisis - yet these countries are amongst the worst affected by the meltdown and and in the crosshairs of the ECB and austerity hawks. Slovenia had run modest deficits ahead of the financial crisis and its debt to GDP ratio was low and declining ahead of the crisis - yet, Slovenia's bond yields have been in crisis territory recently and its debt situation is worsening as the economy teeters into recession. Undoubtedly, countries like Greece made their problems much worse with very high levels of deficits and debt prior to the crisis. That said, even Germany ran significant deficits and had high debt levels prior to the crisis - yet, Germany remains relatively unscathed because it has run massive current account surpluses thanks in part to the Eurozone periphery that ran massive trade deficits that benefited countries like Germany.
This is a point that has been made by many people before: rather than fiscal profligacy, the main root cause of the current European financial crisis can be traced back to large current account deficits run by many EU members following the establishment of the Euro as a common currency, culminating in a sudden stop (in the vicinity of the Great Recession) that pummeled the economic and fiscal health of those countries. A useful chart is available from Kash Mansori at The Street Light - along with his follow-up observations...
In their book "This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly", Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff point out:
An even stronger regularity found in the literature on modern financial crises is that countries experiencing sudden large capital inflows are at high risk of experiencing a debt crisis . The preliminary evidence here suggests that the same is true over a much broader sweep of history, with surges in capital inflows often preceding external debt crises at the country, regional, and global levels since 1800, if not before.
[I've discussed some of these issues in more detail in a couple of other prior posts: Capital Flow Bonanzas and Their Aftermath and Q&A with President Bill Clinton at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative, Part 2 - The Financial Crisis in Europe]
Given the known impact of large net capital inflows and current account deficits on fiscal stability, here's a natural question that came to mind in the context of the Eurozone:
Do pre-crisis current account balances, as opposed to pre-crisis fiscal balances, better predict crisis-period fiscal balances (quantitatively) for countries that are part of the European currency union (EMU)?
This post focuses on that question. The answer, as it turns out, is yes and the implications of this are obviously significant in the context of the recently concluded EU summit.
In this post, I summarize the results of a simple analysis of the average current account (CA) and fiscal balances, as a percentage of GDP, for nearly a dozen European countries that use the Euro as their currency [Section 1]. The analysis focused on CA and fiscal balances in the 7 years preceding the start of the Great Recession (pre-crisis) and fiscal balances in the 2008-2010 (crisis) time period. Countries that joined the Euro currency union in 2007 or beyond were excluded from the analysis since they were not on the Euro long enough in advance of the financial crisis. The key finding from this analysis is that the average CA balance/GDP by country for 2000-2007 [Section 3a, 3b] is a much better quantitative predictor of the average fiscal balance/GDP for the same country in 2008-2010, than is the average fiscal balance/GDP of the country in 2000-2007 [Section 2a, 2b].
The analysis was completed with and without Ireland in the mix. Ireland is a massive outlier in the data when it comes to fiscal deficits - likely due to the fact that the main issue in Ireland was large-scale private debt rather than sovereign debt, and sovereign debt ballooned only later because of the Irish government's huge borrowing to bail out private banks during the crisis. With the exclusion of Ireland, the positive correlation between average pre-crisis CA balance/GDP to crisis-era fiscal balance/GDP is very high and even more stark [Section 3c, 3d]. It is significantly higher than the correlation between average pre-crisis fiscal balance/GDP to crisis-era fiscal balance/GDP [Section 2c, 2d].
The findings here raise more questions about the effectiveness of the recently touted EU "fiscal union" which was largely a fiscal austerity pact, with inordinate emphasis on fiscal balances as opposed to CA balances. Specifically, the data shown here indicate that pre-crisis fiscal balances do not effectively predict fiscal balances during downturns/crises - they are less effective in doing so than pre-crisis CA balances. Hence, a "fiscal union" that demands fiscal austerity as a way to ensure low fiscal deficits in the future, with no attention paid to CA balances, is unlikely to consistently prevent large future fiscal deficits. Further, given the limited direct correlation between CA and fiscal balances over the same period of time [see "Baseline Charts" in Section 3], it is quite possible that countries might run fiscal surpluses along with large current account deficits over the same time period, and yet have little or no protection against future fiscal deficits during downturns [as shown in Section 3a-3d]. Finally, a misguided focus on short-term fiscal deficits and debt (as opposed to longer-term fiscal health) is more likely to drive deflationary results as well in the current environment - which could be another negative consequence of the recently announced EU "fiscal union".
1. The Eurozone Countries