Europe’s Debt Crisis: A Bubble Ready to Burst!

THIS grotesque map of the world, depicting Europe as a bloated balloon, caught my eye this week, and powerfully illustrates one of the factors in Europe’s debt crisis. It depicts the countries of the world sized according to the amount of government spending.

In the words of the World Bank, which published it in a report issued this week (“Golden Growth: Restoring the lustre of the European Economic model“, here), Europe is the world’s “lifestyle superpower”. As opposed to America, which spends almost as much as the rest of the world put together on defence, Europe spends more than the rest of the globe combined on social policies.

In many ways this is an admirable aspect of Europe’s economic model, which combines high living standards with high standards of social welfare. The trouble is, such spending is helping to bankrupt governments—not least because those very same caring policies ensure that Europeans live longer, requiring more expenditure on health care and the payment of pensions for more years.

Anybody who wants to understand the strengths and weaknesses of European economies in this time of crisis would do well to read the report.

First the strengths. Europe, say the authors, invented a unique “convergence machine” by admitting successive waves of poorer countries and quickly raising their standards of living. Convergence has been accelerated by the free flow of trade and capital within the European Union. As the report puts it:

Between 1950 and 1973, Western European incomes converged quickly towards those in the United States. Then, until the early 1990s, the incomes of more than 100 million people in the poorer southern periphery—Greece, southern Italy, Portugal, and Spain—grew closer to those in advanced Europe. With the first association agreements with Hungary and Poland in 1994, another 100 million people in Central and Eastern Europe were absorbed into the European Union, and their incomes increased quickly. Another 100 million in the candidate countries in Southeastern Europe are already benefiting from the same aspirations and similar institutions that have helped almost half a billion people achieve the highest standards of living on the planet. If European integration continues, the 75 million people in the eastern partnership will profit in ways that are similar in scope and speed.

Yet this convergence machine is spluttering, and deep reforms are needed. Much effort has been expended on explaining the nature of the financial crisis of the past two years. The sharpest and most concise analysis I know of is a recent policy brief by Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels (“The euro crisis and the new impossible trinity”, here). This argues that the problems are deeper than a lack of fiscal discipline: there is a flaw in the way the euro zone was designed, without a lender of last resort, without joint bonds and with a vicious feedback loop that weakens both sovereigns and their banks. There is a tendency in Brussels to think that, if only the euro zone were to make the leap to federalism, all would be solved. Far from it.

The World Bank report shows that Europe has deep structural flaws to contend with. Perhaps most worrying is the slowdown in labour productivity, the underlying driver of economic growth over the long term. This chart (right) shows how Western Europe had almost closed the productivity gap with America by 1995. But thereafter it started to lag ever farther behind the United States (and kept losing its lead over Japan).

The effect is most alarming on the Mediterranean rim. These next two charts show that, as expected, in 2002 northern Europe was more productive than southern Europe, which in turn led the new member states of eastern Europe. But between 2002 and 2008 something strange happened. The convergence machine went into reverse for southern Europe. While the easterners were roaring ahead to catch up with the northerners, prroductivity in Mediterranean countries actually fell.


Part of the reason is contained in this chart (right). It shows how foreign direct investment was abruptly redirected from southern countries to the new member states in the east. Mediterranean members faced a triple challenge: they were hit hard by globalisation and the loss of low-tech industries such as textiles; they faced competition from cheaper labour in ex-communist members; and the adoption of the euro made it harder for them to adjust through devaluation. Yet Club Med has only itself to blame.

A premature adoption of the euro by southern economies is sometimes blamed for this reversal of fortune. Others say that letting the formerly communist countries into the European Union so soon did not give the south enough time to become competitive. But perhaps the most likely explanation is that of all the economies in Europe, the entrepreneurial structures of Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were least suited for the wider European economy. For one thing, a sizable part of net output in southern economies is generated in small firms—almost a third of it in tiny enterprises (with fewer than 10 workers). This is not an entrepreneurial profile suited for a big market. Unsurprisingly, with the expansion of the single market in the 2000s, foreign capital from the richer economies of Continental Europe quickly changed direction, going east instead of south as it had done in the 1990s.

Did the south need more time to adjust, or did it squander opportunities? The latter seems more plausible. Ireland has shown that EU institutions and resources can be translated quickly into competitiveness. The Baltic economies are now doing the same. The chief culprits for the south’s poor performance were high taxes and too many regulations, often poorly administered. While these mattered less when its eastern neighbors were communist and China and India suffered the least business-friendly systems in the world, they are now crippling southern enterprise.

All is not lost. Northern European states, especially Nordic countries, show it is possible to innovate, raise productivity and maintain generous social welfare at the same time. This is the World Bank’s explanation for their success:

What has the north done to encourage enterprise and innovation? Much of its success has come from creating a good climate for doing business. All the northern economies are in the top 15 countries of 183 in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings; at 14th, Sweden is the lowest ranked among them. They have given their enterprises considerable economic freedom. Their governments are doing a lot more. They have speeded up innovation by downloading the “killer applications” that have made the United States the global leader in technology: better incentives for enterprise-sponsored research and development (R&D), public funding mechanisms and intellectual property regimes to foster profitable relations between universities and firms, and a steady supply of workers with tertiary education. Tellingly, Europe’s innovation leaders perform especially well in areas where Europe as a whole lags the United States the most. These features make them global leaders; combining them with generous government spending on R&D and public education systems makes their innovation systems distinctively European.

Even so, there are reasons to worry, even in northern Europe. For instance:

What has been more perplexing is Europe’s generally poor performance in the most technology-intensive sectors—the Internet, biotechnology, computer software, health care equipment, and semiconductors. Put another way, the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Taiwan, China, have been doing well in sectors that are huge now but barely existed in 1975. Europe has been doing better in the more established sectors, especially industrial machinery, electrical equipment, telecommunications, aerospace, automobiles, and personal goods. The United States has young firms like Amazon, Amgen, Apple, Google, Intel, and Microsoft; Europe has Airbus, Mercedes, Nokia, and Volkswagen.

The productivity gap is especially important in Europe, given that Europeans tend to work less than Americans, while spending more on social protection.

The hallmark of the European economic model is perhaps the balance between work and life. With prosperity, Americans buy more goods and services, Europeans more leisure. In the 1950s, Western Europeans worked the equivalent of almost a month more than Americans. By the 1970s, they worked about the same amount. Today, Americans work a month a year more than Dutch, French, Germans, and Swedes, and work notably longer than the less well-off Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and Spaniards.

And on top of fewer working hours in the day, and taking longer holidays, Europeans have tended to retire earlier—even as they lived longer. By 2007, the French could expect to draw pensions for 15 years longer than they did in 1965. On current trends for immigration and participation in the workforce, says the World Bank, the 45 European countries in its study will lose 50m workers over the next 50 years. Which brings us to that spending bulge.

Europe’s states are not big spenders on either health or education. The variation among countries stems from a difference in spending on pensions and social assistance. Europe’s countries also differ how they tax these benefits; Northern European countries tax the social security benefits of people with high incomes more than others in Europe. After taxes are considered, the southern periphery is the biggest social spender in Western Europe. But the reason why Europe spends more than its peer on public pensions is the same in the north, center and south. This is not because Europe has the oldest population (Japan’s is much older) nor because of higher pension benefits (annual subsidies per pensioner are about the same in Greece as in Japan). It spends more because of easier and earlier eligibility for pensions.

So the outlook is gloomy. Even with greater productivity, even if governments can reduce unemployment and bring more women into the workforce, Europeans will have to stay in work for many more years. Even so, the workforce will decrease. So Europeans will have to rethink migration policies too.


About Steve King

iPeopleFINANCE™ Chief Operating Officer. Former CEO of Endymion Systems, Inc. a $36m Information Systems Services company. Co-founder of the Cambridge Systems Group, the creator of ACF2, the leading IBM Mainframe Data Center Security product; acquired by Computer Associates. IBM, seeCommerce, marchFIRST, Connectandsell alumni. UC Berkeley alumni. View all posts by Steve King

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