The Important Role Of Fiscal Policy In Counteracting The Economic Downturn

  • The Important Role Of Fiscal Policy In Counteracting The Economic Downturn

    The economic upswing in recent years has led to optimism in large parts of Europe. After years of recession or stagnation in numerous European countries, stronger economic growth and falling unemployment have been recorded, although unemployment in large parts of the euro area remains higher than before the onset of the financial crisis. Austria also experienced a strong economic upswing, which lasted from around mid-2015 to mid-2018 and has since gradually lost momentum.

    In the past few months, however, economic development in the euro area has cooled off increasingly, which is manifested in falling economic growth rates.

    The German economy has been particularly hard hit, not least because of the aftermath of the tradeconflicts instigated by US President Trump and the uncertainties surrounding Brexit; it may already be in recession. Against the background of the marked economic weakness of the important trading partners Italy and Germany, the Austrian economy is also in a downturn – GDP growth for 2019 will probably have to be revised downwards.

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    The increase in industrial production and investment in equipment has weakened noticeably in Austria and the number of unemployed could soon start to rise again – even though the number of unemployed registered with the AMS remains at around 300,000 people, which is significantly higher than the level of approximately 210,000 unemployed before the start of the last economic downturn in 2008. This resulted in a higher number of people taking out loans even those who are in bad credit as shown by many third party agencies like New Horizons.

    Real GDP growth by quarter

    The experience of the last crisis shows that it is important to take measures as quickly as possible to counteract the rise in unemployment. Rising unemployment leads to negative long-term effects – for example, through a substantial drop in income for those affected by long-term unemployment who weaken consumer demand; as well as through a loss of skills that also depress long-term growth potential. In order to prevent these negative consequences, quick and determined countermeasures are required.

    In addition, weak economic activity is burdening public budgets due to lower tax revenues and higher social spending, which also speaks for the rapid implementation of countercyclical fiscal policies that support the overall economy. In the current situation, a well-thought-out, deficit-financed, expansionary fiscal policy can even help the government debt ratio (measured as a percentage of GDP) to decrease further in the medium and long term compared to a scenario without a fiscal stimulus. This is in stark contrast to the often voiced claim that expansionary fiscal policies only lead to higher debts.

    How should economic policy react to the downturn?

    What can economic policy do to counter the economic downturn? The scope for monetary policy to stimulate the economy is extremely limited. The key interest rates in the euro area remain at zero and cannot be reduced further. How effective “quantitative easing” (large-scale bond purchase program such as that of the European Central Bank) is to achieve positive growth and employment effects remains controversial. Although it will be important for the European Central Bank (ECB) to continue its low-interest-rate policy in order to ensure effective economic policy coordination with the fiscal policies of the national governments, it is in any case at a loss when it comes to tackling the economic downturn on its own.

    Given the limited scope for monetary policy, the fiscal policies of national governments must play a more important role in economic policy management. This has also been made clear in the context of the international technical debate in recent months. Well-known macroeconomist Larry Summers and Anna Stansbury recently argued that the euro area was in a monetary “black hole” – a liquidity trap in which there was minimal scope for expansionary monetary policy measures “. Fighting (future) economic downturns make it all the more necessary for national governments to pursue expansionary tax and spending policies in order to stimulate aggregate demand and thus economic growth and employment. Against this background, a new perspective on the important role of fiscal policy is emerging in the international specialist debate.

    Fiscal policy in times of extremely low-interest rates

    The framework conditions for Keynesian accents in economic policy are extremely favorable, especially in Germany and Austria. The groundbreaking work of the former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard points to this. This argues that the cost of public debt needs to be re-evaluated in an environment of very low-interest rates. Blanchard shows that if “safe interest rates” (on government bonds) are lower than nominal economic growth, there will be important consequences for fiscal policy. States can get into debt relatively easily if economic growth and government revenue grow faster than interest costs.

    The interest on ten-year government bonds is now negative, which means that the Austrian government has to repay less at the end of the term than it took out on the loan. In addition, nominal GDP growth rates have been substantially higher than interest rates on average over the past three years. This fact indicates that Austria and Germany currently have a particularly large scope of action when compared to other European countries to counter the economic downturn through expansionary fiscal policies.

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