Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji in Vox:
Southern Eurozone countries have been forced to introduce severe austerity programs since 2011. Where did the forces that led these countries into austerity come from? Are these forces the result of deteriorating economic fundamentals that made austerity inevitable? Or could it be that the austerity dynamics were forced by fear and panic that erupted in the financial markets and then gripped policymakers. Furthermore, what are the implications of these severe austerity programs for the countries involved?
The facts: Austerity and spreads
There is a strong perception that countries that introduced austerity programs in the Eurozone were somehow forced to do so by the financial markets. Is this perception based on a reality? Figure 1 shows the average interest rate spreads in 2011 on the horizontal axis and the intensity of austerity measures introduced during 2011 as measured by the Financial Times on the vertical axis. It is striking to find a very strong positive correlation. The higher the spreads1 in 2011 the more intense were the austerity measures. The intensity of the spreads can be explained almost uniquely by the size of the spreads (the R-squared is 0.97). Note the two extremes. Greece was confronted with extremely high spreads in 2011 and applied the most severe austerity measures amounting to more than 10% of GDP per capita. Germany did not face any pressure from spreads and did not do any austerity.
Figure 1. Austerity measures and spreads in 2011
Source: Financial Times and Datastream.
There can be little doubt. Financial markets exerted different degrees of pressure on countries. By raising the spreads they forced some countries to engage in severe austerity programs. Other countries did not experience increases in spreads and as a result did not feel much urge to apply the austerity medicine.
Two theories about spreads
The next question that arises is whether the judgement of the market (measured by the spreads) about how much austerity each country should apply was the correct one. There are essentially two theories that can be invoked to answer this question. According to the first theory, the surging spreads observed from 2010 to the middle of 2012 were the result of deteriorating fundamentals (e.g. domestic government debt, external debt, competitiveness, etc.). Thus, the market was just a messenger of bad news. Its judgement should then be respected. The implication of that theory is that the only way these spreads can go down is by improving the fundamentals, mainly by austerity programs aimed at reducing government budget deficits and debts.