If you want to feel despair about Europe’s prospects, first look at this recent presentation from Peter Praet, the chief economist of the ECB, then read this op-ed from the chief economist of the German finance ministry. Praet offers a portrait of a continent crippled by inadequate demand, with a strong deflationary downdraft; Ludger Schuknecht declares that we need to stop stimulus and reduce debt. In effect, he says that everyone should be like Germany, and run a huge trade surplus.
If there’s one thing we surely should have learned from the experience of the past seven years, it’s that adding up really matters. My spending is your income, your spending is my income, so if everyone slashes spending and tries to pay down debt at the same time, incomes fall and debt problems probably get worse. Europe’s debt to GDP ratio isn’t rising at this point because it’s spending more than it did during the good years; the overall structural deficit of the euro area is now very small, much lower than it was in 2005-2007, but low growth and inflation mean that GDP is going nowhere.
But German officials see this all as a tale of their virtue versus everyone else’s lack thereof. This means that nobody will change course aside from the ECB, which is in the process of finding out just how limited monetary policy really is when interest rates are already very low and fiscal policy is pulling in the wrong direction.