Thursday, June 07, 2012

Austerity and the Euro need not hinder growth

So what if I said that there is an economy in the Eurozone that has embraced austerity and is experiencing economic growth.

You'd probably think I mean Germany, given it runs relatively low budget deficits and it is widely believed that the depressed value of the Euro is a boon to Germany's export driven industries.

However, I don't mean Germany.  This country grew by 7.6% in 2011, Germany grew by 3%.
Its public debt as a proportion of GDP is 6%, Germany's is 81%.

It has been a Eurozone member since 1 January 2011.

This is Estonia.

According to CNBC, its economy shrank in 2008-2009 by 18%, as the financial crisis hit hard.  Estonia having had its own credit bubble and property speculation bubble to go with it.  The crisis also made it difficult for Estonia to sustain ballooning budget deficits.  So the government there did what had to be done, it cut spending.

All public sector salaries were cut by an average of 10%, but cabinet Ministers had a 20% cut.  The age to receive the state pension was raised, and labour market reforms introduced.

Things are not all rosy, with unemployment at over 11%, growth is essential just to help pull Estonia up.   Estonia lowered and simplified taxation, with a flat income tax rate of 21% (down from 26% when first introduced in 1994).   Not for Estonia is the pseudo-austerity seen in France, the UK and Greece of raising taxes (taking money out of the hands of citizens and investors) to cut the deficit.  It was spending cuts, shadowed by tax cuts that shrank the state and boosted the economy.

The economy has picked up as technology firms have emerged, growing an IT sector that is thriving.  For an economy that was once based on being a colony of the USSR, Estonia now rates Finland and Sweden as its biggest export markets.

Estonia has thrived following real austerity, and it has thrived still even having moved from a minor fiat currency to a major one.  The Euro has not been a problem, as Estonia increased in competitiveness not by destroying the savings of its citizens by printing money, but by increasing productivity, reducing waste in the state sector and making it easier to do business.   

Let's remember that Estonia's economy has twice been decimated in the last 20 or so years.  First by independence from the USSR which saw most of its industry shut down for being inefficient and obsolete, and secondly by the bursting of its credit bubble in 2008.  In both cases the reduction in GDP was greater than that experienced by Greece today.  Greece, after all, put aside dictatorship in 1974, not 1991 (nor was Greece occupied for 50 years).  Estonia has had much less time to get its act together, and until 2004 it was not a member of the European Union either, so neither enjoyed the completely open market, nor the offer of subsidies for agriculture or infrastructure that Greece has supped from for many years.

Estonia has per capita GDP less than Greece, real wages lower than the Greek minimum wage and its farmers receive subsidies which are one-third of that, for the equivalent properties, of those in Greece (or indeed France or the rest of the EU-15 - those EU Member States that were never part of the Warsaw Pact or former Yugoslavia).  

So Greece ought to embrace real austerity.  Cut its state sector.  Don't hike up taxes, but rather reform them to simplify and lower them - minimise exemptions, but lower rates and fewer taxes.  

Secondly, talk of exiting the Euro would be unnecessary as an alternative.  For a bankrupt state that can't keep its spending aligned to its revenue can't manufacture a fiat currency that will be trusted by anyone.  It will be like remaking the Zimbabwean Dollar.  

Finally, the Cato Institute has rightfully fisked Paul Krugman's misuse of statistics to claim Estonia was hit by austerity, when the recession it faced was prior to any austerity.  The President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has since called Krugman "smug, overbearing and patronising".

So isn't it about time that journalists took the over-quoted prick on some more?

Check out Mr Ilves's wonderful tweets damning Krugman in this Huffington Post article - bear in mind this is in English and not Mr Ilves's first language, but he runs rings around any current leaders of English speaking countries I know of.   Bear in mind also that he is a centrist in Estonian political circles.  He is no libertarian, he is no radical, but the mainstream of Estonian politics is fiscal austerity, low tax and low levels of regulation.

Finally, Mr Ilves wrote convincingly on the Hoover Institution (Stanford University) website about how his country got to where it is, with some damning of those on the left in the West who thought people in the USSR simply loved living under the authoritarian yoke of the CPSU (point fingers at Sue Bradford and friends).  He points out the issue that countries like his are being expected to contribute to bailouts for countries with higher per capita incomes than Estonia.   How long will taxpayers in those countries tolerate that?  The answer is that they shouldn't.

In short, the clear point is that there are European countries that had it far harder for far longer than Greece, have "followed the rules", and have been reaping the benefits of the hard work involved in rebuilding a productive economy with much less government.

If eastern Europe gets it (and not all of it does), does it mean that in future, the term "southern Europe" will be a synonym for stagnation, corruption and economic malaise, more than the east?

Furthermore, what does it mean when voters in Greece and France choose governments that essentially campaign on forcing voters in other EU countries to pay for their profligacy?

UPDATE: Anonymous below points out that income tax in Estonia is not all it seems as employer social security contributions are 33% on top of income tax, which is obviously a heavy burden.   See more on Estonian tax here.


Anonymous said...

A 10% cut in state sector incomes isn't even austerity - it's just common sense. Wisconsin managed rather more last year. In somewhere like NZ we'd need either a one-off 50% cut, at least.

The other big lie about Estonia is that it has a low, flat tax rate at 21%. This is simply false

Estonia's net income tax is over 50%

That's because as well as the 21% income tax, three's a 3% insurance tax, another 2% pension tax,
and employer contributions of 33% social security tax, plus 1.4% more unemployment tax

So that's 26% paid directly by employees, about 35% by employers, for a nett tax of over 60%

Estonia. Still socialist.

So your real lesson for Greece is simply: put on a 35% tax on employee's income at source and the books will balance.

Yeah. Great move. Perhaps the Greens could do the same thing here, cut the headline rate to 10%, and whack on a 50% rich bastard levy?

Estonia still has public pensions, public dole, public healthcare and all the rest. It has a very long way to go before there's any real austerity whatsoever

Jeremy Harris said...

From memory Estonia also has rules on businesses only paying tax on profits disbursed to shareholders, any profits reinvested in the business are tax free. Might be Lithuania though...

Mark Hubbard said...

Another timely piece. I highly recommend the Cato link.

Libertyscott said...

Anonymous - I don't disagree, but there is a more fundamental point here. Estonia did NOT increase these taxes since 2008 to reduce its deficit, but cut spending, and it did put a scythe through regulations. Yes Estonia is far from being a fully free market economy and the state as a proportion of GDP is relatively high (though lower than the UK and much Western Europe), but compare it to Greece the formula it has adopted has been cutting spending and liberalising markets.

Compared to where Estonia once was, it is progress.