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ECB’s Draghi: Unemployment in the euro area

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From ECB President Mario Draghi at Jackson Hole: Unemployment in the euro area

No one in society remains untouched by a situation of high unemployment. For the unemployed themselves, it is often a tragedy which has lasting effects on their lifetime income. For those in work, it raises job insecurity and undermines social cohesion. For governments, it weighs on public finances and harms election prospects. And unemployment is at the heart of the macro dynamics that shape short- and medium-term inflation, meaning it also affects central banks. Indeed, even when there are no risks to price stability, but unemployment is high and social cohesion at threat, pressure on the central bank to respond invariably increases.

1. The causes of unemployment in the euro area

The key issue, however, is how much we can really sustainably affect unemployment, which in turn is a question – as has been much discussed at this conference – of whether the drivers are predominantly cyclical or structural. As we are an 18 country monetary union this is necessarily a complex question in the euro area, but let me nonetheless give a brief overview of how the ECB currently assesses the situation.

ATA TruckingFigure 1: Change in the unemployment rate since 2008 – the euro area and the US

The long recession in the euro area

The first point to make is that the euro area has suffered a large and particularly sustained negative shock to GDP, with serious consequences for employment. This is visible in Figure 1, which shows the evolution of unemployment in the euro area and the US since 2008. Whereas the US experienced a sharp and immediate rise in unemployment in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the euro area has endured two rises in unemployment associated with two sequential recessions.

From the start of 2008 to early 2011 the picture in both regions is similar: unemployment rates increase steeply, level off and then begin to gradually fall. This reflects the common sources of the shock: the synchronisation of the financial cycle across advanced economies, the contraction in global trade following the Lehman failure, coupled with a strong correction of asset prices – notably houses – in certain jurisdictions.

From 2011 onwards, however, developments in the two regions diverge. Unemployment in the US continues to fall at more or less the same rate. In the euro area, on the other hand, it begins a second rise that does not peak until April 2013. This divergence reflects a second, euro area-specific shock emanating from the sovereign debt crisis, which resulted in a six quarter recession for the euro area economy. Unlike the post-Lehman shock, however, which affected all euro area economies, virtually all of the job losses observed in this second period were concentrated in countries that were adversely affected by government bond market tensions.

On Fiscal Policy:

Turning to fiscal policy, since 2010 the euro area has suffered from fiscal policy being less available and effective, especially compared with other large advanced economies. This is not so much a consequence of high initial debt ratios – public debt is in aggregate not higher in the euro area than in the US or Japan. It reflects the fact that the central bank in those countries could act and has acted as a backstop for government funding. This is an important reason why markets spared their fiscal authorities the loss of confidence that constrained many euro area governments’ market access. This has in turn allowed fiscal consolidation in the US and Japan to be more backloaded.

Thus, it would be helpful for the overall stance of policy if fiscal policy could play a greater role alongside monetary policy, and I believe there is scope for this, while taking into account our specific initial conditions and legal constraints. These initial conditions include levels of government expenditure and taxation in the euro area that are, in relation to GDP, already among the highest in the world. And we are operating within a set of fiscal rules – the Stability and Growth Pact – which acts as an anchor for confidence and that would be self-defeating to break.

Conclusion:

Unemployment in the euro area is a complex phenomenon, but the solution is not overly complicated to understand. A coherent strategy to reduce unemployment has to involve both demand and supply side policies, at both the euro area and the national levels. And only if the strategy is truly coherent can it be successful.

Without higher aggregate demand, we risk higher structural unemployment, and governments that introduce structural reforms could end up running just to stand still. But without determined structural reforms, aggregate demand measures will quickly run out of steam and may ultimately become less effective. The way back to higher employment, in other words, is a policy mix that combines monetary, fiscal and structural measures at the union level and at the national level. This will allow each member of our union to achieve a sustainably high level of employment.

We should not forget that the stakes for our monetary union are high. It is not unusual to have regional disparities in unemployment within countries, but the euro area is not a formal political union and hence does not have permanent mechanisms to share risk, namely through fiscal transfers. [19] Cross-country migration flows are relatively small and are unlikely to ever become a key driver of labour market adjustment after large shocks.

Thus, the long-term cohesion of the euro area depends on each country in the union achieving a sustainably high level of employment. And given the very high costs if the cohesion of the union is threatened, all countries should have an interest in achieving this.

Draghi is pleading for help from fiscal policymakers (Bernanke also pleaded with Congress in US for fiscal help – to no avail – but as the graph shows, the situation is even worse in Europe).
Calculated Risk

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