In economics, austerity describes policies used by governments to reduce budget deficits during adverse economic conditions. These policies can include spending cuts, tax increases, or a mixture of the two. Austerity policies may be attempts to demonstrate governments’ liquidity to their creditors and credit rating agencies by bringing fiscal income closer to expenditure.
In macroeconomics, reducing government spending generally increases unemployment. This increases safety net spending and reduces tax revenues, to some extent. Government spending contributes to gross domestic product (GDP), so the debt-to-GDP ratio which signifies liquidity may not immediately improve. Short-term deficit spending particularly contributes to GDP growth when consumers and businesses are unwilling or unable to spend. Under the controversial theory of expansionary fiscal contraction (EFC), a major reduction in government spending can change future expectations about taxes and government spending, encouraging private consumption and resulting in overall economic expansion.
Initial austerity results in Europe have been very negative, with unemployment rising to record levels and debt to GDP ratios rising, despite reductions in budget deficits relative to GDP. Eurostat reported that Eurozone unemployment reached record levels in September 2012 at 11.6%, up from 10.3% the prior year and that the debt to GDP ratio for the 17 Euro area countries together was 70.1% in 2008, 79.9% in 2009, 85.3% in 2010, and 87.2% in 2011. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimated in August 2012 that if the U.S. implemented moderate austerity measures, the unemployment rate would rise by over 1% and economic growth would be significantly reduced in 2013. The U.S. partially avoided the “fiscal cliff” through the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. U.S. unemployment has fallen steadily from a peak of 10% in early 2010 to 7.6% by March 2013.
Austerity measures are typically taken if there is a threat that a government cannot honor its debt liabilities. Such a situation may arise if a government has borrowed in foreign currencies that they have no right to issue or if they have been legally forbidden from issuing their own currency. In such a situation, banks and investors may lose trust in a government’s ability and/or willingness to pay and either refuse to roll over existing debts or demand extremely high interest rates. In such situations, inter-governmental institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may demand austerity measures in exchange for functioning as a lender of last resort. When the IMF requires such a policy, the terms are known as ‘IMF conditionalities‘.
In some cases, governments became highly indebted after assuming private debts following banking crises. For example, this occurred after Ireland assumed the debts of its private banking sector during the European sovereign debt crisis.
Around 2011, the IMF started issuing guidance suggesting that austerity could be harmful when applied without regard to an economy’s underlying fundamentals. In 2013 they published a detailed analysis concluding that, “if financial markets focus on the short-term behavior of the debt ratio, or if country authorities engage in repeated rounds of tightening in an effort to get the debt ratio to converge to the official target,” then austerity policies could slow or reverse economic growth and inhibit full employment. Keynesian economists and commentators such as Paul Krugman have suggested that this has in fact been occurring, with austerity yielding worse results in proportion to the extent to which it has been imposed.
Development projects, welfare, and other social spending are common programs that are targeted for cuts: Taxes, port and airport fees, train and bus fares are common sources of increased user fees. Retirement ages may be raised and government pensions reduced.
In many cases, austerity measures have been associated by critics with a decline in standard of living, and have led to popular protest. A representative example is the nation of Greece. The financial crisis—particularly the austerity package put forth by the EU and the IMF— was met with great anger by the Greek public, leading to riots and social unrest. On 27 June 2011, trade union organizations commenced a forty-eight hour labor strike in advance of a parliamentary vote on the austerity package, the first such strike since 1974. Massive demonstrations were organized throughout Greece, intended to pressure parliament members into voting against the package. The second set of austerity measures was approved on 29 June 2011, with 155 out of 300 members of parliament voting in favor. However, one United Nations official warned that the second package of austerity measures in Greece could pose a violation of human rights.
Austerity programs can be controversial. In the Overseas Development Institute briefing paper “The IMF and the Third World” the ODI addresses five major complaints against the IMF’s austerity ‘conditionalities’. These complaints include these measures being “anti-developmental”, “self-defeating”, and “they tend to have an adverse impact on the poorest segments of the population”. In many situations, austerity programs are implemented by countries that were previously under dictatorial regimes, leading to criticism that the citizens are forced to repay the debts of their oppressors.
Economist Richard D. Wolff has stated that instead of cutting government programs and raising taxes, austerity should be attained by collecting (taxes) from non-profit multinational corporations, churches, and private tax-exempt institutions such as universities, which currently pay no taxes at all.
In 2009, 2010, and 2011, workers and students in Greece and other European countries demonstrated against cuts to pensions, public services and education spending as a result of government austerity measures. Following the announcement of plans to introduce austerity measures in Greece, massive demonstrations were witnessed throughout the country, aimed at pressing parliamentarians to vote against the austerity package. In Athens alone 19 arrests were made while 46 civilians and 38 policemen had been injured by 29 June 2011. The third round austerity has been approved by the Greece parliament on 12 February 2012 and has met strong opposition especially in the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki where police clashed with demonstrators.
Opponents argue that austerity measures depress economic growth, and ultimately cause reduced tax revenues that outweigh the benefits of reduced public spending. This is especially the case when austerity measures affect the private sector and do not merely correct unreasonable expenditures on the public sector workforce. The case of Greece significantly corroborates these views. Moreover, in countries with already anemic economic growth, austerity can engender deflation which inflates existing debt. Such austerity packages can also cause the country to fall into a liquidity trap, causing credit markets to freeze up and unemployment to increase. Opponents point to cases in Ireland and Spain in which austerity measures instituted in response to financial crises in 2009 proved ineffective in combating public debt, and placing those countries at risk of defaulting in late 2010.
In October 2012, the International Monetary Fund announced that its forecasts for countries which implemented austerity programs have been consistently overoptimistic, suggesting that tax hikes and spending cuts have been doing more damage than expected, and countries which implemented fiscal stimulus, such as Germany and Austria, did better than expected. This data has been scrutinized by the Financial Times, which found no significant trends when outliers like Germany and Greece are excluded. Determining the multipliers used in the research to achieve the results found by the IMF were also described as an “exercise in futility” by Professor Carlos Vegh of the University of Michigan. Also, Barry Eichengreen of UC Berkeley and Kevin H O’Rourke of Oxford write that the IMF’s new estimate of the extent to which austerity restricts growth was much lower than historical data suggests.
Several economists have argued that an appropriate strategy when an economy is faced with unusually high private debt levels is to exchange private debts for public debts initially, then cut government debt via an austerity strategy once the economy recovers. Applying an austerity strategy to a struggling economy can be counter-productive according to Keynesian theory described above.
For example, the private sector may become highly indebted, such as when a housing bubble bursts. Housing prices fall while the mortgage obligations remain fixed, leading to “underwater” homeowners unable to consume at sufficient levels to drive economic growth. A banking crisis can result, as defaulting homeowners result in banks unable to lend or stay in business, which slows the economy and worsens unemployment. These effects can become self-reinforcing, creating a downward economic spiral. This spiral is at the core of the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. and the European sovereign debt crisis.
Economist Amir Sufi at the University of Chicago argued in July 2011 that a high level of household debt was holding back the U.S. economy. Households focused on paying down private debt are not able to consume at historical levels. He advocated mortgage write-downs and other debt-related solutions to re-invigorate the economy when household debt levels are exceptionally high.
Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Zandi both advocated significant mortgage refinancing or write-downs during August 2012. This could be financed by the government taking on additional debt in the short-run as a form of stimulus. The government would borrow at a very low interest rate and create an entity to purchase mortgages, receiving a higher interest rate from mortgages it refinances. Losses due to mortgage principal write-downs would be shared between the government and financial institutions, with the government losses offset by the interest rate differential.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported in April 2012: “Household debt soared in the years leading up to the Great Recession. In advanced economies, during the five years preceding 2007, the ratio of household debt to income rose by an average of 39 percentage points, to 138 percent. In Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Norway, debt peaked at more than 200 percent of household income. A surge in household debt to historic highs also occurred in emerging economies such as Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania. The concurrent boom in both house prices and the stock market meant that household debt relative to assets held broadly stable, which masked households’ growing exposure to a sharp fall in asset prices.
When house prices declined, ushering in the global financial crisis, many households saw their wealth shrink relative to their debt, and, with less income and more unemployment, found it harder to meet mortgage payments. By the end of 2011, real house prices had fallen from their peak by about 41% in Ireland, 29% in Iceland, 23% in Spain and the United States, and 21% in Denmark. Household defaults, underwater mortgages (where the loan balance exceeds the house value), foreclosures, and fire sales are now endemic to a number of economies. Household deleveraging by paying off debts or defaulting on them has begun in some countries. It has been most pronounced in the United States, where about two-thirds of the debt reduction reflects defaults.” These countries might also benefit from household debt reduction policies involving exchanging private debt for public debt.
Balancing stimulus and austerity
Strategies that involve short-term stimulus with longer-term austerity are not mutually exclusive. Steps can be taken in the present that will reduce future spending, such as “bending the curve” on pensions by reducing cost of living adjustments or raising the retirement age for younger members of the population, while at the same time creating short-term spending or tax cut programs to stimulate the economy to create jobs.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde wrote in August 2011: “For the advanced economies, there is an unmistakable need to restore fiscal sustainability through credible consolidation plans. At the same time we know that slamming on the brakes too quickly will hurt the recovery and worsen job prospects. So fiscal adjustment must resolve the conundrum of being neither too fast nor too slow. Shaping a Goldilocks fiscal consolidation is all about timing. What is needed is a dual focus on medium-term consolidation and short-term support for growth. That may sound contradictory, but the two are mutually reinforcing. Decisions on future consolidation, tackling the issues that will bring sustained fiscal improvement, create space in the near term for policies that support growth.”
The “Age of Austerity”
The term “Age of austerity” was popularized by British Conservative leader David Cameron in his keynote speech to the Conservative party forum in Cheltenham on 26 April 2009, when he committed to put an end to what he called years of excessive government spending.
Word of the year
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary named the word “austerity” as its “Word of the Year” for 2010 because of the number of web searches this word generated that year. According to the president and publisher of the dictionary, “austerity had more than 250,000 searches on the dictionary’s free online [website] tool” and the spike in searches “came with more coverage of the debt crisis”.