Saturday, July 6, 2013

Ireland and the Austerity Debate

by Mohamed A. El-Erian

DUBLIN – Both sides of the austerity debate that is now gripping economists and policymakers cite Ireland’s experience as evidence for their case. And, however much they try to position the country as a poster-child, neither side is able to convince the other. Yet this tug-of-war is important, because it illustrates the complex range of arguments that are in play. It also demonstrates why more conclusive economic policy making is proving so elusive.

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Illustration by Chris Van Es

Here is a quick reminder of Ireland’s sad recent economic history. Lulled into complacency and excess by ample supplies of artificially cheap financing, Irish banks went on a lending binge. Irresponsible risk-taking and excessive greed outpaced prudential regulation and supervision. The banking system ended up fueling massive speculation, including a huge run-up in real-estate prices, only to be brought to its knees when the bubbles popped.

Unlike the many Irish households that lost jobs and part of their wealth, the banks were deemed to be “too big to fail,” so Ireland’s political elites intervened with state funding. But, by under-estimating both the domestic and international aspects of the problem, the authorities transformed a banking problem into a national tragedy.

Rather than restoring the banks to financial health and ensuring responsible behavior, the Irish economy as a whole was dragged down. Growth collapsed; unemployment spiked. Lacking opportunities, emigration increased – a vivid reminder of how economic crises have wreaked havoc on the country’s demographics throughout its history.

Investors withdrew in droves from what was once deemed the “Celtic Tiger.” The government had no choice but to request a bailout from the “troika” – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – thereby transferring an important component of national economic governance to an ad hoc, fragile, and sometimes feuding group of institutions.

While other struggling eurozone members also turned to the troika, Ireland stands out in at least two notable ways. First, two democratically-elected governments have steadfastly implemented the agreed austerity programs with little need for waivers and modifications – and thus without the associated political drama. Second, despite enduring considerable pain, Irish society has stuck with the program, staging few of the street protests that have been common in other austerity-hit countries.

All of this puts Ireland in the middle of three important issues raised in the austerity debates: whether orthodox policy, with its heavy emphasis on immediate budget cuts, can restore conditions for growth, employment gains, and financial stability; whether the benefits of eurozone membership still outweigh the costs for countries that must restructure their economies; and how a small, open economy should strategically position itself in today’s world.

Austerity’s supporters point to the fact that Ireland is on the verge of “graduating” from the troika’s program. Growth has resumed, financial-risk premia have fallen sharply, foreign investment is picking up, and exports are booming. All of this, they argue, provides the basis for sustainable growth and declining unemployment. Ireland, they conclude, was right to stay in the eurozone, especially because small, open economies that are unanchored can be easily buffeted by a fluid global economy.

“Not so fast,” says the other side. The critics of austerity point to the fact that Irish GDP has still not returned to its 2007 level. Unemployment remains far too high, with alarming levels of long-term and youth joblessness. Public debt remains too high as well, and, making matters worse, much more of it is now owed to official rather than private creditors (which would complicate debt restructuring should it become necessary).

The critics reject the argument that small, open economies are necessarily better off in a monetary union, pointing to how well Switzerland is coping. And they lament that eurozone membership means that Ireland’s “internal devaluations,” which involve significant cuts in real wages, have not yet run their course.

The data on the “Irish experiment” – including the lack of solid counterfactuals – are not conclusive enough for one side to declare a decisive victory. Yet there is some good analytical news. Ireland provides insights that are helpful in understanding how sociopolitical systems, including economically devastated countries like Cyprus and Greece, have coped so far with shocks that were essentially unthinkable just a few years ago.

On my current visit, most of the Irish citizens with whom I have spoken say that the country had no alternative but to follow the path of austerity. While they appreciate the urgent need for growth and jobs, they believe that this can be achieved only after Ireland’s finances are put back on a sound footing. They also argue that, given the banks’ irresponsibility, there is no quick way to promote sustained expansion. They are still angry at bankers, but have yet to gain proper retribution.

Ireland’s accumulation of wealth during its Celtic Tiger period, when the country surged toward the top of Europe’s economic league table, has also been an effective shock absorber. This, together with fears about being left out in the geopolitical cold (despite the country’s historical links with Britain and America), dampens Irish enthusiasm for economic experiments outside the eurozone.

Indeed, Irish society seems remarkably hesitant to change course. Right or wrong, Ireland will stick with austerity. Efforts to regain national control of the country’s destiny, the Irish seem to believe, must take time. In some of Europe’s other struggling countries, however, citizens may well prove less patient.

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