Twilight of the Technocrats: Ireland, Italy, and Austerity

Here’s a long-ish opinion piece I wrote for Foreign Affairs.

Let’s define austerity as a sharper than expected drop in government expenditure and a sharper than expected increase in taxes by a government experiencing a large budget deficit. To date there have been about 21 billion euros in austerity measures enacted in Ireland, with about the same amount to come in the future, and not a single riot.

The scale of austerity in Ireland must give Foreign Affairs readers pause. At the scale of the United States economy, this is the equivalent of shutting down the US Department of Defense. Italy is facing into a period of austerity as well. What can they expect?

Continue reading “Twilight of the Technocrats: Ireland, Italy, and Austerity”

Environment news roundup

With all eyes on the euro, the budget, the Middle East, some remarkable, smaller stories emerged.

Irish roads are now among the safest in the OECD. I guess the main reason is that much traffic has shifted to the new roads.

The 2010 Drinking Water Quality Report is out. Water quality is getting better, but slowly. Biological contamination is down and trihalomethanes (which result from improper chemical treatment) are down too.

Construct Ireland reports on an unpublished SEAI study (the leak is easily identified) that shows that building standards were not enforced. This is not surprising in itself, but the scale is. Sean O’Rourke’s interview with Gerry Wardell is worth a listen, and SEAI’s response is intriguing.

The EU is putting pressure on Ireland to hurry up with water charges. Ireland is obliged to fully recover the costs of water services. This implies an average charge of 500 euro per household per year, 5 times what is expected to be announced in next week’s budget.

The carbon tax is likely to go up. Initially, the carbon tax was tied to the ETS permit price, which has gone down. The market is least distorted when permit price and carbon tax are equal. Coal and peat, the fuels that emit most carbon dioxide, are still exempt from the carbon tax and there is no sign of the commencement order.

Dublin is considering a fire call-out charge. This would be wrong. Fire is an emergency. One should never hesitate to call for help.

Solving the Fiscal Crisis Via Limiting Government Commitments

Ludger Schuknecht has a long track record in writing on public finance (in the mid-2000s, he was prominent in highlighting the windfall nature of revenues associated with real estate booms).  He is now with the German Ministry of Finance and this paper outlines one approach to solving the fiscal crisis.

Debt and Interest

There has been a lot of focus on the level of debt in Ireland.  The household sector is suffering from a debt overhang as a result of the excesses of the previous decade, the government sector has seen its debt level soar as it tried to cover the losses in the banking sector and continues to run huge deficits, while the level of debt in the non-financial corporate sector appears enormous but seems to require a closer examination.

Using the CSO’s Institutional Sector Accounts it is possible to come with charts like the following (starting from when the dataset begins).

The lines in the chart represent the non-consolidated sum of the liabilities of each sector under three headings.

  • AF2: Currency and Deposits
  • AF3: Securities other than Equity
  • AF4: Loans

The government is the only sector to have liabilities in all three categories as it had retail debt, government bonds and outstanding loans (mainly Promissory Notes) summing to €141 billion at the end of 2010.  The corporate sector has both loan and outstanding debt securities, though loans make up 97% of the €347 billion total.  The household sector has €185 billion of loans outstanding and is the only sector showing a declining level of debt.

The total of these is €673 billion which is equivalent to 430% of GDP or 526% of GNP.  There has been much speculation about where these aggregates are headed over the next few years and whether a default of debt in any or all the sectors is imminent.  A debt level in excess of 500% of GNP does suggest that only one conclusion can be drawn.

However, before declaring that the debt is “unsustainable” and can never be carried it is worthwhile to consider the actual burden that this level of debt is creating rather than simply focussing on the size of the debt.

Again we can turn to the CSO and this time to the Non-Financial Accounts and the interest expense in the Primary Allocation of Interest Account (item D41). 

Two of the lines here appear to make sense.  Household interest expenditure rises with interest rates and debt accumulation and peaks in 2008 at €8.1 billion and then falls as interest rates fell and debt was repaid and was €4.2 billion in 2010.  The interest expenditure of the government begins to rise from 2008 due to well-known reasons and was €4.9 billion in 2010.

The pattern on interest expenditure by non-financial corporations does not present itself to such a straightforward analysis.  This peaked in 2008 at €7 billion but in 2010 had fallen to just €712 million.

At 2.3% of the liabilities from the first chart, the interest for households appears low but the figure for non-financial corporations is startling given that we have just seen that they had €347 billion of potential liabilities requiring interest payments.  Surely firms paid more than €712 million of interest in 2010?

One thing to note is that these accounts are non-consolidated so there could be intra-company loans in the total.  Secondly, firms did make substantial payments in 2010 as distributed income of corporations (€18.0 billion) and as reinvested earnings on direct foreign investment (€14.6 billion).

The interest expense of government is set to increase over the coming years but lower interest rates and continued repayment will reduce the figure for households.  The total for businesses remains an anomaly.

In total in 2010, the three sectors allocated €9.8 billion to interest.  This is equal to 6.3% of GDP or 7.7% of GNP.  Under neither measure does this look like an impossibly large burden but perhaps the discussion will unearth a deeper understanding of these figures.