Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Thought About Greek Austerity

Time to Scrap a Failed Policy. Time for Greece to Stand up for Itself
These days, we are living in the middle ages of economics, where we still treat headaches by drilling in to the head.. and we treat flesh wounds by hack-sawing limbs.... but at least we as a profession are (hopefully) starting to realize how foolish it all is.

This story is one where austerity demands lead to a full-on dismantling of the Greek GDP.. ostensibly to help things. Of course, if the GDP gets worse, then the Debt-to-GDP ratio will also get worse.. leading to yet another round of austerity (complete with the promise that *THIS TIME* it really is the last round of austerity). Greece has seen six rounds to far, and the situation only gets worse.

When it's all said and done.. it will all seem as foolish as when the Austrians printed money in the 1920s in an attempt to alleviate hyperinflation. At the time, only Hayek saw the foolishness of it. Prescribing austerity to a country whose economy is collapsing is equally foolish.  In 20 years, we'll all look like idiots for not having known any better.

Results of Austerity
So far, Greek unemployment has tripled is this time in 2008, when the Greek crisis emerged, while interest rates on government bonds have reached 177%. If ever an economic policy failed, German-backed Greek austerity failed. To quote the BBC (a news source which is not sympathetic to any party in the eurozone crisis),

"The new Greek budget foresees a deepening of the worst recession of any country in modern history, our correspondent says.

The national economy is expected to shrink next year by 4.5% and public debt is likely to rise to 189% of GDP, almost double Greece's national output. This year, public debt stood at 175%.

The head of Syriza, a left-wing opposition party, said the latest budget cuts would leave Greeks unable to afford essential goods this winter."

Greek Left Detects the Pattern
Alexis Tsipras was quoted by NPR "I wouldn't be surprised if you were back again in a few months, asking for more cuts. Because these measures are going to bring a deeper recession and we'll have bigger debts." For some reason, this result  common to almost all austerity budgets that ever were, certainly true of Argentina, was not immediately obvious earlier.

What Should Be Done? 
As a matter of National Interest, Greece should realize the pattern being played out and act accordingly. The idea of the Greek government so beholden to foreign (German) economic interests that it is only able to survive by surrounding itself with increasingly massive security cordons is utter foolishness. The Greek government should come to its senses before it turns into the Argentine government. given both the current events, and the direction of things, that is evidently not far off. The looming threat is one of a complete loss of market confidence in Greek markets and Greek debts. But then we must ask... "Has this not already happened?" On the other hand, continuing with austerity will only exacerbate the already desperate economic situation. At this point, Greek citizens have nothing to lose but their chains.

As for economists, we should realize how ridiculous this all is.  Prescribing austerity to a country whose economy is collapsing is pure foolishness and we should see it for the quackenomics that it is.

Max Berre is an economist at the EDHEC-Risk Institute (Ecole Des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord) who has worked as a sovereign debt expert at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington and has taught financial economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Education's Return on Investment

In this era of austerity, it must be remembered that expenditures by the state are not unilaterally expenses. Funds dispensed by the state are also investments, which yield a measurable return on investment. According to the OECD's Education at a Glance 2012 report, education-related expenses grant massive returns on investment at both public and private levels. The OECD reports that the Net Present Value of public and private premium for completing secondary and tertiary education is $388,300 for men and $250,700 for women across the 28 OECD member nations. The net public return for tertiary education is two to three times public investment level. 

Unfortunately, this is not the way that this issue has progressed. Education expenditures have recently become and issue for the wrong reasons in several places, such as the UK, Quebec and the Netherlands. 

A Question of Externalities
Another interesting aspect of the OECD report is the discussion over public and private returns to educational expenditures. Private returns on education are comprised by a measurable earnings gap as well as an unemployment gap. Public returns on education include tax revenue, an unemployment gap, and social contribution effects (which are housing benefits and social assistance that does not have to be paid by the taxpayer). In addition, higher education rates are directly causally linked to increased economic growth.

While costs are borne mostly by the individual, benefits are divided between the individual and the public. The combination of (partially) public gains and (mostly) private financing can cause a  costs-benefits mismatch which might lead to lower-than-optimal investment in education under laissez-faire, despite high returns, public benefits, and economic growth effects which education causes. 

While education is 31% privately financed in the UK, it is 97% publicly financed in Finland. In 2009, the US spent 2.6% of its GDP on tertiary education. More than half of this figure was comprised by private expenditures. 

What Should Be Done?
Expenditures of the state should be evaluated taking potential Return on Investment into consideration. For policy markers, this should mean that GDP growth, revenue growth, and growth levels in other relevant measurable metrics should be considered.  

The debate then shifts from asking "Can we afford to spend more on education?" to "How can we best spend on education in order to maximize future revenue growth?" and "How can educational expenditures help reducing other social costs, such as unemployment, housing subsidy, incarceration, and healthcare costs?"
Max Berre is an economist at the EDHEC-Risk Institute (Ecole Des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord) who has worked as a sovereign debt expert at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington and has taught financial economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.