Seminar 10: Public Debt, Austerity and the Politics of Adjustment


In 2008, the Eurozone experienced a sovereign debt crisis. Public debt now averages around one year of national income in most member-states (approximately 90 per cent of GDP). But this varies significantly between countries.


Most of the increase in national public debt, since 2008, was an outcome of “bailing out” the private financial sector, and collapsed revenues associated with declining economic growth.

The EMU, as discussed in previous seminars, was created as a single currency without a state. It is not a federal fiscal or budgetary union capable of absorbing asymmetric shocks.

The cost of the collapse in the banking sector, such as in Ireland, is paid by national taxpayers not the federal currency union. Banks are global in life but national in death.

The origins of the crisis 

What are the origins of the Eurozone crisis? They can be traced to both domestic and international factors.

From 1999 all EMU member-states transferred monetary sovereignty to the European Central Bank (ECB). This was created as the most independent central bank in the world and modeled in the tradition of the German Bundesbank.

The ECB has interpreted its primary mandate as price stability, not economic growth, maximizing employment or financial market stability.

Up until 2008, everything seemed fine. Interest rates converged. Households, firms and governments could borrow cheaply. This convergence in financial markets was assumed to equal economic and political convergence.

But the institutional foundations of national economies continued to diverge. Portugal did not become Austria. This would not be a problem in a federal union i.e. between California and Delaware. But it is a problem in the EMU.

Capital flowed from the core to the periphery fueling asset price bubbles in Spain and Ireland, for example. When this capital flow when into reverse, countries got into trouble.

The imbalance of capitalisms 

One way to observe the divergence between creditor and debtor countries (core and periphery) is to examine the current and capital account within the Euro area.

Up until 2008, most trade was internal to the Euro area, a semi-closed trading bloc.

Current account

Source: Johnston & Regan (2016)

These macroeconomic indicators, which have shaped the post-crisis European economic governance regime, are generally used to illustrate the difference in cost competitiveness between countries.

Angela Merkel famously carried a graph of the divergence in unit labour costs (ULCs) into every EU Council meeting, which are  then used as an indicator that the south of Europe needs to become ‘competitive’ i.e. reduce wages.

What current account imbalances really illustrate is the divergence in national models of capitalism, or growth regimes, within the Euro area: consumption and export-led.

Can countries converge on an export-led growth model?

Losing tools of adjustment 

Prior to the monetary union, these different models could co-exist because each member-state had access to those macroeconomic tools to adjust their economies when confronted with an economic shocks. This is no longer the case.

Monetary policy is Europeanised whilst fiscal policy is deeply constrained by the rules of the Maastricht treaty, and the fiscal compact treaty.

Countries are forced to ‘compete’ with each other via other mechanisms i.e. reducing wages and lowering taxes.

In agreeing to join the EMU, all member-states agreed to follow two strict ‘Maastricht rules’ that stipulate they cannot have a public-debt to GDP ratio of more than 60 per cent or budget-fiscal deficits that exceed 3 per cent.

These rules were first broken by Germany, then France, Italy and Greece.

Other than these fiscal rules the EMU did not generate the problem-solving capacity to deal with asymmetric economic shocks.

It is not an ‘optimal currency area’. It was an unprecedented political experiment in international regional cooperation: creating a currency union without a social state.

No lender of last resort 

The fragility of the EMU was radically exposed in 2008.

When the US subprime mortgage crisis spread to Europe, regional banks collapsed, capital flows went into reverse, economic growth declined and government revenue plummeted.

In the absence of a central bank capable of acting as a lender of last resort, financial markets panicked.

The interest rate on government bond yields shot up. Peripheral member-states of the Euro area were priced out of the markets.

Interest rates

Those countries priced out of the market had to seek financial assistance from the Troika (ECB, IMF, EU Commission), who issued loans with strict conditionalities attached.

The most important point to observe, however, is that the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area was a consequence not a cause of the financial crisis.

It could have been avoided if the ECB had the capacity to act as a lender of last resort. But the ECB does not have this mandate.

The ECB eventually saved the currency when the new President, Mario Draghi, issued a press release, signaling that he would “do all that is necessary to save the Euro”.

Who pays?

The question of who pays for this financial-banking collapse in the EMU reveals the tense relationship between capitalism and democracy; markets and citizens; investors and taxpayers.

It also reveals the limitations of the nation-state in governing global markets.

There are three ways this sovereign debt in Europe can now be reduced:

  • taxes on capital
  • inflation
  • austerity


Inflation was, historically, how nation-states dealt with public debt. In Europe today, the strategy is fiscal consolidation (austerity) and internal devaluation.

But what exactly does this mean?

In effect, it means that the only way to pay off public debt is to increase export-led growth. But absent monetary and fiscal tools, growth can only come from improved competitiveness, this is assumed to equal reduced labour costs.

The presentation we looked at last week by Mario Draghi captures the core policy strategy of the Euro area.

European governments, such as Ireland, could reduce all public debt by privatizing all public assets. This means the government would pay rent to those who own schools, hospitals and police stations rather than pay interest to fund them.

This is obviously not going to happen.

Capital taxes 

Thomas Piketty calls for a progressive private capital/wealth tax as a means to reduce public debt. What are the advantages/disadvantages of this fiscal solution?

A progressive tax on European capital-wealth (not just bank deposits but all assets including shares) at a rate of 0 per cent on up to 1 million, 10 percent between 1 and 5 million, and 20 percent above 5 million would reduce public debt by 20 percent of GDP.

Alternatively, the same rates of 0, 1, and 2 percent over 10 years would yield the same result.

The important point to be observed is that different economic choices have different distributional implications. In distributing the burden of adjustment for the banking collapse, governments have decided to not tax capital-wealth.

Rather, the strategy is to increase labour-income taxes, and reduce public expenditure. But do governments really have a choice? Are alternative adjustment paths possible?


Why do democratic governments not tax capital to deal with the public debt crisis, as suggested by Piketty?

Think about the importance of ideas, interests and institutions in shaping the political economy of adjustment.

First, capital taxes directly contradict the general intellectual paradigm underpinning European integration. Second, the interests and influence of those with wealth are politically opposed to this.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in the context of EMU, it would require cross-national coordination among governments: it would require giving up more fiscal sovereignty, which the electorate don’t want.

The capacity of the nation-state to solve economic problems is clashing with the realities of global financial markets.

What about inflation as a strategy to reduce public debt?

An inflation rate of 5 percent per annum would allow governments to reduce their debt by more than 15 percent. It was this type of inflation that allowed Germany to embark on its post-war reconstruction without creating a sovereign debt crisis (in addition to massive financial assistance from the USA).


If there is no inflation, and no tax on capital, and a growth rate of 2 percent per annum, then the only choice is to cut spending and wages. But this austere strategy will take Euro governments over 20 years to reduce their debt to GDP ratio by 20 percentage points.

For example, at present, the Irish government spends more on debt interest re-payment as a percent of GDP than it does on its universities. Public debt is another persons private wealth. It is a form of redistribution.

European countries are rich, wealth and capital-income ratios are at their highest since the 19th century. This is not the case for governments who must rely on debt or taxes to finance public expenditure.

Nobody wants to pay more tax, neither the rich nor the poor. Member-states in the Euro do not want to pool their debt or deficits. There is no ‘technical’ solution to these distributive dilemmas. It is a political problem.

Seminar 9: The Brave New World of European Central Banking


The central institution of the EMU is the European Central Bank (ECB). In this seminar we will discuss the nature of that institution: why it was constructed and it’s design flaws.

The ECB was born out of the Maastricht Treaty. The negotiations leading up to this were intense. Policy and academic debates focused on the design of central banking. Two different models competed for attention:

  1. The Anglo-French model (AFM)
  2. The German model (GM)

These central banking models differ in their objectives and institutional design.

The design

The AFM model operates from the assumption that the objective of central banking is more than price stability. It includes financial and banking stability, maintaining high employment and stabilization of the business cycle.

In the GM model the primary objective of central banking is price stability.

In terms of design, the AFM model operates from the assumption that central banks are relatively dependent upon government decisions.

The GM model operates from pure political independence.

The GM model was enshrined in the Maastricht treaty, particularly Article 105 and 107.

Both stipulate that the ECB must be completely independent and that it’s only responsibility is price stability (although it does not rule out that this should be complemented with a concern for the wider objectives of the EU community as laid out in Article 2).

No lender of last resort

Printing money or ‘overdraft credit’ facilities are strictly prohibited in the Treaties, an interpretation that led to an intervention by the German Constitutional Court in the aftermath of the crisis.

The policy of outright monetary transactions (OMT), aimed at resolving the sovereign debt crisis was interpreted by elite opinion, in Germany, as ‘printing money’. It was considered ‘fiscal’ policy.

The language of the Treaties make the ECB tougher on inflation and more independent than the Bundesbank.

For example, a government majority in the German parliament can change Bundesbank statues. This is not the case with the ECB, where any change requires unanimity among all 28 EU member states.

The implication of having no lender of last resort is that countries issue debt in a foreign currency.

Why did the German model prevail?

It is worth asking why member-states accepted the German model (transferring unprecedented economic sovereignty to an international technocratic institution)?

There are many explanations for this. But increasingly, scholars tend to prioritize two factors: the dominance of the monetarist idea and the strategic position/influence of Germany over the negotiations.

The monetarist counter-revolution stipulated that central banks and government cannot lower unemployment without creating a systematic inflation bias. The only way to lower unemployment is through supply-side reform.

Three policy areas became central to the underlying economic philosophy and ideational framework of European central banking:

  1. Monetary = interest rates targeted at output gaps
  2. Fiscal = balanced stable budgets
  3. Financial stability = banking union
  4. Structural reform = flexible labour market and lower labour taxes

It was only after the crisis did banking stabilization and financial market regulation emerge as a core policy concern.

The case for independence 

The empirical evidence in favor of political independence is quite strong.

Most studies suggest there is a tradeoff between political independence and inflation (as we discussed two weeks ago).

But this is not a free-lunch as monetarist theory assumes: it depends on the level and extent of coordinated wage setting (whereas monetarism assumes it depends on labour-price flexibility).

Economic ideas matter!

European conservatism 

The Federal Reserve, particularly during a crisis, has always taken a pragmatic turn toward Keynesianian macroeconomics, in order to maintain growth and employment.

Despite the Eurozone experiencing the worst ever unemployment crisis on record, the ECB has not taken responsibility for stabilizing output and employment fluctuations. Why?

This is considered the responsibility of national governments, who are mandated to technically design ‘structural’ reform policies: product and labour market liberalization.

See the Macroeconomic Imbalance Scorecard and new EU economic governance reforms.

Independence and accountability

One way to empirically observe the difference between the ECB and the FED is to compare their policy actions since 1999. See Figure 8.2 in De Grauwe (p156).

The data suggests that the ECB is much more cautious in changing it’s policy rate and much less active in targeting the output gap. It is, by most empirical measures, more conservative.

This raises some political economic problems of accountability. The ECB effectively sets its own objectives. It considers employment (structural reform) and fiscal policy (budget rules) the responsibility of national politicians.

But if politicians make bad decisions they remain accountable to the electorate. They can be voted out of office. This is not the case with policymakers in the ECB or Commission.

Technocratic economic decisions are always political because there are always distributional implications.

Whilst the ECB is the most independent central bank in the world, it is also the most unaccountable central bank in the world. But is there a necessary tradeoff between accountability and independence?

Macroeconomic stability

The accountability of the ECB is weak for two reasons.

  1. First, the Euro area lacks strong political institutions capable of exerting control over its performance
  2. Second, it has interpreted the Treaties to mean that it’s only objective is price stability and anti-inflation.

Financial and “macroeconomic stability is on the shoulder of politicians“. This is a quote from Jean Claude Trichet.

The Germans tends to agree, as outlined in this speech of the President of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidman.

But if the ECB, and central banking more generally, is not responsible for macroeconomic stability (economic and employment performance) in the Euro area, then who is?

If it is national governments, then politicians have a policymaking problem: member-states don’t have any macroeconomic tools to promote policies such as real exchange rate convergence, other than promoting supply side ‘structural reforms’.

These reforms might promote a business friendly growth strategy that is useful in the long-long term, but electorates may not be willing to wait that long.

In recognition of this lack of accountability at the ECB, there has been an attempt to increase accountability indirectly such as issuing regular press reports, hosting media meetings and releasing monthly bulletins.


Remember, the Euro system decision making process = the executive board of the ECB (president, vice-president and four directors) + the governing council (governors of the 18 national central banks).

It is assumed that national central bank governors act in the Euro-wide system interest.

Perhaps the most peculiar feature of the Euro system is that the responsibility for banking regulation and supervision was kept firmly in the hands of nation-states.

The broad principle of banking regulation and supervision was set out in an EC Directive (the second banking directive, 1989) prior to the signing of Maastricht. It sets out two clear principles:

  1. Hone country control – the responsibility for supervising Deutsche Bank rests with Germany regardless of where it’s activities take place
  2. Home country responsibility – each country is responsible for regulating its own financial market

This lack of effective European wide supervision allowed private banks to expand their balance sheets and take on excessive risk from 2001 onwards, risks that ultimately ended up on the public sector balance sheets of governments, and then the ECB.



Asset price bubbles

From 2001 onwards, the balance sheet of the major Eurozone banks exploded.

The ratio of total assets in German banks was 4 times their deposit ratio. This means they were borrowing massively on the inter-bank money market. They were borrowing short and lending long.

From 1999-2008 the problem in the Euro area was not inflation but the emergence of asset-price bubbles, which could be observed in the growth of the money supply (M3).

This was a clear signal to the ECB that future financial crises were on the horizon.

An excessive focus on inflation prevented the ECB from taking action in these asset markets. This is unsurprising. The problem of exploding bank-credit is not a problem, by definition, in most monetarist macroeconomic theories.


Since 2011, the Euro system has instituted the ‘European Systemic Risk Board’, which is a step toward more centralized financial and banking authority. Most control remains at the national level.

But overall, the brave new world of European central banking is not really that brave, with the exception of OMT, and the expanded asset purchasing programs.

Most of those policy choices with political salience (fiscal and income) remain in the hands of national governments.

Blog post assignment

Your blog post assignment is due on Friday November 11th, before 5pm (end of week 9). You must drop in a hard copy, and submit a copy on safe assign (via blackboard).

Here are some tips for writing a good blog post:

  1. Be clear about what you want to say before you start.
  2. Map out the paragraph structure in your rough work.
  3. Start with a clear puzzle and a specific question (questions lead to answers).
  4. Write a direct imaginative title.
  5. Write a captivating introduction.
  6. Specify your core claim/argument.
  7. Marshall empirical evidence to back up this claim.
  8. Discuss this evidence in relation to the wider literature.
  9. Graphically present your data where possible.
  10. Conclude by specifying why it is relevant.
  11. Write for a public audience.
  12. Use in-text citations (a rich bibliography signals that you’ve researched the topic).
  13. Enjoy the writing process.
The length is between 1200-1400 words. For a blog post this implies 10-13 concise paragraphs. The referencing style is Harvard.
Use online links in the text to direct the reader to the references. There is a blog option on Microsoft word, which is useful.
Make sure to write your name/student number on the cover page. Print on one side only, use font size 12, space 1.5, and staple the pages together. Use a standardized font.
You need to submit a hard copy into my assignment box in the SPIRe corridor + submit a copy via safe assign on blackboard.

Feel free to email me with your ideas, or to discuss further. For examples of excellent academic-style blogs, see this website:

Seminar 8: Social Europe, Where Art Thou?


As European economic integration deepens, national capacities to offer social compensation to offset the risks of market integration, declines. This what scholars often mean when they talk about “compensating” the losers of globalisation.

Why then do nation-states not transfer these social competencies (problem solving capacities) to the European level? The core reading we will engage this week is Fritz Scharpf (2010) “The asymmetry of integration: Why the EU Cannot be  Social Market Economy“. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Judge-made law has played a crucial role in the process of European integration. In the vertical dimension, it has greatly reduced the range of autonomous policy choices in the member states, and it has helped to expand the reach of European competences. At the same time, however, ‘integration through law’ does have a liberalizing and deregulatory impact on the socio-economic regimes of European Union member states. This effect is generally compatible with the status quo in liberal market economies, but it tends to undermine the institutions and policy legacies of Continental and Scandinavian social market economies. Given the high consensus requirements of European legislation, this structural asymmetry cannot be corrected through political action at the European level.

Political science research, in the institutionalist tradition, suggests that governance at the international level is constrained by conflicts of interest (public and elite preferences) among national governments. In the EU, the type of supranational governance that tends to emerge reflects a “clash of capitalisms” among different member-states.

A large part of the European integration literature attempts to explain where these elite preferences come from. What the research suggests is that elites are more willing to cede national authority in sovereignty areas, but citizens are more favorable to EU social policies.

The EU has developed some problem solving capacities in in those policy areas where member-states have most interest in protecting: agriculture and fisheries. Further, the EU has developed problem solving capacities in monetary, banking, fiscal and social policy.

Nevertheless, the Euro crisis has exposed the limited problem-solving capacities of the EU (and it’s member-states) in the context of global financial markets.

Problem solving capacity in a multilevel polity 

This has led some scholars, such as Fritz Scharpf, to argue that the member-states of the EMU are stuck in the worst of all worlds: nether national nor European policymakers have the problem-solving capacity to deal with the crisis. In particular, they do not have the effective capacity to assert control over financial-capital markets (such as a fully fledged banking-capital market union).

Does the Euro crisis illustrate this loss of effective problem-solving capacity in a multi-level polity? What has been the response?

When political scientists refer to the effectiveness of national governments in the EU, they are referring to the problem-solving capacities of the political system to deal with economic integration, or market liberalisation. These are problem solving capacities typically associated with the democratic state.

Effective governments are those that are perceived to manage/regulate the economy efficiently and those deliver public goods typically associated with the social state. The capacity to raise tax revenue is the fundamental characteristic of how contemporary democracies manage capitalist markets. Weak states struggle to raise revenue and provide services.

The simplest way to measure the role of the state in the economy (and society) is to look at the total amount of taxes relative to national income. The figure below shows the total amount of taxes as a percentage of national income in Sweden, France, Britain and the USA.


Prior to WW1 the state had no real role in economic and social life. With taxes equivalent to 7-8 per cent of national income, the state could just about manage those “regal” functions of managing a police force and an army. The state existed to maintain social order and defend property rights.

Between 1920-1980 the share of national income that rich countries began to devote to social spending grew substantially. It increased by more than a factor of 5 in Nordic countries. But between 1980-2010 the tax share stabilized almost everywhere. The EU consolidated during this period also, but never developed tax revenue raining capacity.

Positive and negative integration. 

One way to think about this is to distinguish between positive and negative integration. Positive integration refers to those market correcting mechanisms of political intervention, whereas negative integration refers to market making mechanisms of economic integration.

In the context of the EU, market correcting requires political agreement on contested social and economic policies in the Council (what many refer to as “Social Europe”), whereas the latter relies on regulatory policies and judicial activism (market liberalization). In simple terms, the former requires institution building, the latter liberalisation.

Product regulation: race-to-the-top 

Think about the economics of European integration in terms of product market competition.

National “product regulations” may not be affected by negative integration, and under certain conditions, can lead to a race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom. National regulations may actually serve as a certificate of superior product quality, such as the Denominación de Origen (DO) for Spanish wine.

Hence, some policy fields are immune from the “deregulatory” pressure associated with European market integration, particularly those policy areas with high political salience. For example, research suggests that environmental protection and superior quality standards tend not to lead to regulatory competition among states.

For example, very few countries produce wine in Europe with the intention of competing on “cost”. Rather the objective is to compete on “quality”. The latter, requires regulatory standards that regulate against a race to the bottom. The politics of this can be observed in the recent EU/USA TTIP negotiations.

Process regulation: race-to-the-bottom  

This “race to the top” is less likely in what are often called “process regulations” associated with the factors of production. In particular, taxation, social and employment protection are not immune from cost competition among states and firms in the EU.

If the taxes of one state can be avoided by moving the tax base to another state, all states have an incentive to cut taxes in  the hope that this will attract investment and increase their total tax revenue. The logical end game is that all states will end up having lower rates, or no tax rates, particularly in small open economies.

Social policy regulations that increase the payroll costs of firms are also highly vulnerable to the pressures of international regulatory competition. The same is true of those social policies that interfere with managerial discretion (i.e. works councils and other forms of corporate governance).

Those who advocate a “Social Europe” recognize this problem, but it is generally assumed that national problem solving capacity can be re-gained through re-regulation at the European or international level. This can only be achieved through intense political negotiations among national governments in the Council

European wide problem-solving is most effective in the achieving the harmonization of product standards. It is least effective in harmonizing social and fiscal policies.

The asymmetry of integration

Collective political agreement aimed at making rules would harmonize tax, social, wage, and welfare policies are generally met with enormous political resistance i.e. positive integration.

These represent policy areas where national capacities are economically constrained by downward pressure of EU competition, and where European action remains blocked by conflicts of interest (veteos) among national governments. The outcome is a decline in problem-solving capacity in both the nation-state and the EU.

But where exactly do these conflicts of interest among governments originate?

Researchers who come from a comparative political economy perspective would argue that  asymmetry of integration (between market-making and market-correcting) capacities can be traced to differences in national varieties of capitalism and the institutional architecture of the EU itself.

Fritz Scharpf (2010), puts significant emphasis on the role of European law in explaining this asymmetry.

Judicial activism 

To avoid a situation whereby member-states would agree to market liberalisation (removing borders to the free movement of peoples, goods and services) but fail to implement it, the European community has enshrined it in legal treaties, which are then monitored by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In certain cases (liberalization of public services) market-making regulations cannot be achieved through the Council, and depend on unilateral action by the Commission and the ECJ.

European law tends to preserve the status quo in liberal market economies (LMEs), whereas it tends to undermine the political compromises in social market economies (SMEs). Hence, in “social democratic” economies, the political left tend to be far more sceptical of European integration than their counterparts in southern Europe.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ)

The ECJ became a core engine of European market integration, as it ensured that member-states did not have to keep going back to the Council for consensus agreements on trade liberalization and political legislation. It is the defender of “liberalisation”.

The ECJ is the first of its kind, and a core reason why the EU is far more than an international organisation. In the absence of an EU-wide government, law, or judicial activism, many suggest, has become a mask for politics, with the implications that judicial decisions are immune from political objections.

Unlike national law, where decisions can be reversed politically through parliamentary majorities, ECJ decisions can only be reversed by Treaty amendment.


Most of ECJ judicial action aims at extending negative integration, whereas political integration requires consensus in the Council, where all member-states have a veto.

For example, would the UK agree to a federal agreement of social transfers? Would Germany agree to a fiscal union? Would Ireland agree to corporate tax harmonisation?

It is important to note how this judicial activism occurred; the ECJ, over time, has reinterpreted the commitment of member-states to create a common market as defending the subjective rights of individuals and firms against their member states. Liberalization has expanded far beyond an economic rationale.

For radical pro-Europeanists, this is to be welcomed. The loss of national autonomy was always going to be weighed by real and anticipated benefits of Europeanization. Euro elites got a shock when the French and Dutch rejected the proposed EU constitution, and when the Irish rejected Lisbon, and when England and Wales voted fro Brexit.

In France, the dominant discourse against the EU constitution was that it was perceived as impeding upon their national social rights. Legally, and institutionally, the EU was perceived as incapable of responding to political preferences that sought to defend “Social Europe”. For many, the latter is not possible, given the legal constraints of the EU.


What this all of this suggest?

It implies that the structural constraints of European integration have cut off access to a European wide social market economy, precisely where national Christian and Social Democratic political parties want to go. It suggests the EU cannot be a social market economy.

Discuss: do you agree?

Seminar 7: EMU – Integration Amongst Unequals?

Theory: Central banks and inflation 

The standard neoclassical model stipulates that the rate of inflation is determined primarily by the growth rate of the money supply, which is controlled by the central bank, while the rate of unemployment is affected by the level of real wages, and unanticipated changes in government policy (banks are conspicuous by their absence).

The core policy recommendation therefore is an independent central bank, competitive labour markets and stable government.

Making the central bank independent of political control increases the credibility that monetary policy will remain tight (overcoming time-inconsistency problems), thereby allowing wage-bargainers to lower their nominal wage demands, in the assurance that real wage gains are not lost to inflation.

The importance of this theory, although it is rarely stated as such, is that central bank independence matters because of its signaling, credibility and coordination effects.

Under these conditions, rationality alone leads actors to coordinate their behavior on an optimal equilibrium. From a political economy point of view, this assumption creates two obvious problems:

  • It assumes unrealistically high levels of information
  • It neglects collective action problems on how to coordinate behaviour

Institutions: the labour market 

From a political economy perspective achieving coordination will depend upon an appropriate set of institutional arrangements; institutions that allow for credible commitments. Central banks are embedded in a much wider ecology of institutions and therefore independence alone is insufficient to improve employment outcomes.

Primarily, the institutions of wage bargaining can have large effects on economic performance. The coordination of wage bargaining refers to the agree to which unions and employer organizations actively coordinate the determination of wage settlements across the economy in response to monetary signals.

Wage bargaining is nested in 5 sets of interactions, or dyads:

  1. Between confederal organizations representing employers and employees
  2. Within these organizations between leaders and rank and file members
  3. Between organizations/firms across the economy
  4. Between organizations and economic policymakers
  5. Between monetary policymakers and fiscal policymakers

Free for all or coordination?

Imagine a scenario where wage bargaining is not coordinated (most countries today, particularly the USA), but conducted by many unionized units/firms acting separately. Each union will be tempted to seek an inflation increment (teacher unions).  Each unit does not think about the effects on the economy overall. They are not responsive to monetary threats.

Imagine a scenario where wage bargaining is highly coordinated (in decline in most European countries, but generally exists in core Eurozone countries). The lead bargaining unit knows that its settlement is likely to be followed by the whole economy, and therefore it internalizes concerns about inflation and unemployment. It is highly responsive to monetary threats.

One important hypothesis emerges from the second scenario: countries with coordinated labour markets will have lower rates of inflation regardless of central bank independence. The impact of central bank independence is positive when wage bargaining is highly coordinated, and negative when it is not.

In the EU, most policymakers assume that the effectiveness of the high employment and low inflation scenario in Germany is the outcome of central bank independence. This is only one institutional feature, the other feature is it’s coordinated wage-setting regime.


The Confederation of German Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) comprised eight unions with a total membership of 6,155,899 in 2011. The two biggest unions under the DGB’s umbrella are the German Metalworkers’ Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall) with some 2,245,760 members in 2011 and the United Services Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) with some 2,070,990 members.

Think about that for a moment, IG Metall organizes 2.3 million manufacturing workers in Germany, more people than the entire Irish workforce. This is the German “growth model”.

German employers and unions exert significant control over their membership via the resources that they provide to that membership: skill certification, vocational training schemes, and social insurance. For most of the post-war period the economy wide pay settlement is led by IG Metall, the metal workers union.

In the build up to EMU, non-coordinated market economies had an incentive to coordinate wage settlements. This gave birth to social pacts in Ireland and southern Europe.

Independent central banks are not a free lunch

The data tends to suggest that the more independent the central bank, the lower the inflation rate. The unemployment effects of increasing the level of central bank independence varies according to the degree to which wage bargaining is coordinated.

Hence – contrary to the assumptions underpinning the policy response to the Euro crisis – the unemployment costs of increasing central bank independence are not zero. It depends on the degree of labour market coordination. Competitive market mechanisms are not sufficient to coordinate monetary, fiscal and wage outcomes, in the interest of employment performance.

Institutions such as collective bargaining, sectoral composition, trade unions, employer associations, the minimum wage, employment protection and various other issues pertaining to labour market governance should not be seen as factors that interfere with the market. They are the market.

Central bank independence is only a “free lunch” in the European Monetary Union when combined with effective coordinated wage setting. This is very difficult to secure and cannot be engineered. The broader implication is that monetary union has clear winners and losers.

Winners and losers 


This institutional asymmetry and the distributive effects of the monetary union can be observed both between, and within, the core and peripheral member-states of the Eurozone. Those at the margins of the labour market bear the greatest cost.

Why did the convergence of wage inflation and the real exchange rate fail in the first ten years of the Euro?

Höpner & Lutter (2014) provides a useful synopsis of the general causal mechanism: cheap credit = economic growth = NULC inflation = general price inflation = competitive disadvantage = current account deficit = sovereign debt crisis.

But what explains the heterogeneity in NULC inflation? The short answer is heterogeneity of European labour and wage bargaining regimes.

The Euro area, by definition, demands that countries develop an export-led growth model. Absent:

  • Interest rate adjustment
  • Exchange rate adjustment
  • Independent fiscal polices

The only mechanism to stimulate and grow the economy is through the export channel. In countries with low to medium tech manufacturing (arguably Germany) this implies that countries must compete on the basis of wage-labour costs. CME’s have an in-built structural advantage.

Table 1 in Höpner (2014) is very revealing.

It confirms the argument that it was not the exposed sectors but the sheltered (public and construction) sectors were most nominal wage pressure occurred. Germany also stands out as the one country where significant wage repression/compression occurred, fuelling wage competition.

The conclusion is that regime-type variables (i.e. not just economic and credit growth) have an independent effect on differences in NULC increases, and subsequently price increases, even after controlling for a battery of other explanatory factors.

Why does this matter?

Discuss: The interventions by the European Commission and the Troika push Southern European countries in the opposite direction to what makes Northern European countries successful.

Seminar 6: Trajectories of Liberalization in Europe

The varieties of capitalism perspective has been the central framework to explain institutional differences between countries in the study of comparative political economy.

But t’s not viable if it cannot address and explain processes of institutional change. Lets remind ourselves of the distinctive features of the VOfC approach:

  1. Firm-centric
  2. Rationalist
  3. Complementary institutions
  4. Equilibrium-based
  5. Stability

This leads to a typology of liberal and coordinated market economies (LMEs and CMEs) whereby employers are distinguished by the extent tow which they pursue cooperative or competitive coordination. The institutions of a political economy are stable only as long as they are supported by certain segments of capital.

Institutional change occurs via the following mechanisms, which force MNCs and government to adapt/change:

  1. Exogenous shocks
  2. Endogenous drift (defection and re-interpretation)

The most cited example of drift and defection is how German employers managed to exit collective bargaining commitments, and their creative reinterpretation of German labour law (favorability principle). Flexibilisation occurred without rewriting the rules. The form remained ‘stable’ but the ‘function’ changed.

Institutional reform in a market economy is always political because it sparks distributive conflict over who should bear the burden of adjustment. Think about Irish water.

Institutional arrangements in one sphere of the political economy condition the positions actors take in other spheres.

  1. The origins of pension reform in Sweden compared to the USA
  2. The origins of corporate governance reform in France and Germany

Despite all of this VOfC is much better placed to explain stability than change. Further, there can be little doubt that all capitalist economies have experienced growing inequality and in the EU, increased liberalisation. How does VofC account for these changes?

Does it imply all countries are converging toward a single growth model? Does it mean that we should give up a comparative research agenda focused on explaining cross-national variation?

Kathleen Thelen suggests no. What we are observing are different trajectories of liberalization built around very different political coalitions. Her core argument is that to explain institutional change in a political economy we need to analyze the underlying political coalitions upon which those institutions rest.

This requires untangling the difference between coordinated capitalism and egalitarian capitalism. VOfC is primality interested in the coordinated capacities of employers, and the productive capacities of firms. Whilst this may remain stable, over time, it does not imply these structures continue to be egalitarian, or based on positive distributional outcomes.

Critics of VOfC are interested less in the efficiency-enhancing effects of economic institutions but their solidarity-enhancing effects. High levels of efficiency and high levels of equality only existed in the post-war golden age of European capitalism.

Over the past twenty years, different European countries have adapted to the pressures of exogenous and endogenous in different ways, and pursued different liberalizing moves. The figure below (figure 4 in Thelens article) illustrates the correlation, or not, between high/low equality and high/low coordination.


This leads to three ideal-typical trajectories of of economic liberalisation in Europe:

  1. De-regulation (Anglo-Saxon)
  2. Dualisation (Continental Europe)
  3. Embedded flexibility (Scandinavia)

All are based on an expansion of market relations but occur under the auspices of very different social coalitions, with significant implications for distributive outcomes.

Deregulation occurs through displacement; explicit and direct attempts to impose the market. For example, the assault on the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin. If employers lack collective coordinating capacities they will do everything to ensure labour does too.

Dualisation is based around a differential spread of market forces and occurs through institutional drift (i.e. not updating policies to reflect change). This can often occur through the intensification of cooperation between employers and unions in core sectors of the economy, leading to ‘insiders and outsiders’.

Flexicurity occurs through conversion whereby labour market and social programs are re-adapted to ensure individuals are reintegrated into the market. Thus often occurs through active labor market policies, whereby institutions are turned to new goals and built around new social coalitions.

Central to all of these trajectories of change are electoral politics. Social democratic countries mobilized women and expanded the public sector, thereby turning women into a core constituency of Scandinavian politics. This did not occur in countries with social insurance or occupation based models i.e Germany.


In those countries where manufacturing dominated producer group politics, public policy continued to favour the manufacturing sector, and the trajectory was increased ‘dualism’.

The implication of Thelen’s argument is that to build a new politics of social solidarity does not mean defending labour market institutions and public policies of the past. On the contrary, egalitarian varieties of capitalism remain robust when they are carried forward by new social coalitions and turned to significantly different ends.


What type of institutional change does the EU promote? Who are the core actors? How does this interact with domestic politics.



Seminar 5: The Politics of Economic Diversity within Europe

Political economists have always been interested in the differences in economic and political institutions that occur across countries. Some regard these differences as deviations from best practice that will dissolve  as nations ‘catch up’ to a technological or organizational leader. Others see them as durable historical choices for a specific kind of society, since institutions conditions levels of social protection and the distribution of income. In each case comparative political economy revolves around conceptual frameworks used to understand institutional variation across nations.


This is the open line to Hall & Soskice’s (2001) seminal book on ‘varieties of capitalism’ (VOfC). It’s core objective is to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the institutional similarities and differences between market economies. It’s a foundational study in the politics of comparative capitalism.

The overarching question guiding the literature on ‘the politics of comparative/advanced capitalism’ is whether we can expect the competitive pressures of globalization to lead to convergence among the advanced industrial societies of the world? Put simply; are all countries converging on a “neoliberal” model of capitalist development?

In this seminar we are going to examine those factors that condition the adjustment path a political economy takes in the face of such challenges. We will ask whether European integration is compatible with different growth models, and whether the EU gives priority to some growth models over others. The Eurozone is an excellent case study to examine this question.

To start, it is worth going back to the classical varieties of capitalism framework (VOfC), to assess it’s merits and limitations.


VOfC can be considered an attempt to move beyond three different perspectives in the study of comparative capitalism:

  1. Modernization theory (role of the state), classic case studies included France and Japan.
  2. Neo-corporatism (unions-employers), classic case studies included the UK and Germany
  3. Social systems of production (governance), classic case studies included Batten-Württemberg and Third Italy.

VOfC places the firm (or MNC corporation) at the centre of what they call an ‘actor-centred institutional’ framework’. The latter comes from the study of game theory, and rational choice institutionalism.

The corporate firm

VOfC scholars model the behaviour of the corporate firm in game-theoretic terms (strategic interaction). The rationale for this is to provide ‘micro-foundations’ to their ‘macro-economic analysis’. In effect, it is an attempt to replace neoclassical economics with new micro foundations built around the corporate firm and domestic institutions.

The basic elements of the theoretical approach can be summarized as follows:

  • It starts with a relational view of the corporate firm (MNC success depends upon overcoming coordination problems with a wide range of actors).T


There are five sub-spheres of the political economy that the corporate firm must engage with, and each throws up a set of coordination problems that need to be resolved if the firms wants to become competitive in a market economy:

  • Industrial/labour relations (managing wage and productivity levels)
  • Vocational training and education (securing a workforce with suitable skills)
  • Corporate finance (secure sufficient levels of finance and investment)
  • Inter-firm relations (securing relationship with suppliers and clients through marketing and sales)
  • Employee relations (developing specialized information/culture within the firm)


From the VOfC perspective, different countries can be distinguished on the basis of how their MNC firms resolve these coordination problems. Not all firms are the same. Not all domestic institutions are the same. This leads to two ‘ideal types’ along which nations can be arrayed:

  • Liberal market economies (LMEs), of which the USA is an archetype case.
  • Coordinated market economies (CMEs), of which Germany is an archetype case.

In LMEs, firms primarily coordinate their activities via competitive market arrangements: formal contracting based on the price signal and the marginal calculations stressed by neoclassical economics. In CMEs firms depend more heavily on non-market relationships: incomplete contracting and network monitoring based on collaborative relationships and strategic interactions.

Markets (and national models of capitalism) are conceptualized as a set of qualitatively distinct complementary institutions (rules) that support the strategic capacity for:

  • The exchange of information
  • The monitoring of behavior
  • The sanctioning of defection


One additional factor is emphasized in VOfC that doe snot generally exist in game-theoretic approaches: deliberation.

Deliberation describes the capacity of conflicting actors to reach agreement on the collective and coordination problems they face. Deliberative institutions are forums for communication or problem-solving that provide actors with strategic capacities they would otherwise not enjoy.

In a political economy, where you have multiple actors and multiple iterations (and therefore multiple equillibria), formal institutions are rarely sufficient to guarantee coordination on an agreed equilibrium (for example, how to distribute the burden of fiscal adjustment, austerity).

This requires informal rules, norms and understandings on what is socially appropriate. History and a common culture matter.

Institutional complementarity 

VOfC contends that path dependent differences in the institutional framework (embedded in the five sub-systems mentioned above) of the political economy generate systemic differences in across LMEs and CMEs. They are differences in kind. Each economy operates according to its own distinct logic.

The presence of institutional complementarities reinforce these differences between LMEs and CMEs. VOfC scholars regularly cite the strong correlation between employment protection and stock market capitalisation, which is considered important for long-term and short-term skill investment.

A nation-state (political economy) that has one type of coordination in one sphere of the economy (flexible labour markets) tend to develop complementary practices in other spheres of the economy (de-regulated finance). If this is correct, institutional practices of various types should not be distributed randomly. They should cluster on the LME and CME divide.

Can we say this about a multilevel polity such as EMU?

The LME-CME difference is strongly supported by data on labour market and corporate finance across the OECD. LMEs rely more on markets for both of these, whereas CMEs tend rely on non-market forms of coordination, particularly when it comes to skill formation i.e. human capital regimes.

Old Germany 

The production regime in Germany, in the past, was usually considered the archetype CME. This gives rise to the following set of complementary institutions (see figures 1.3-1.4 in the introduction):

  • Patient capital that enable firms to retain a skilled workforce through economic downturns.
  • Executive managers have structural incentives to engage in consensus-based decision making.
  • Sectoral or industry level pattern wage-setting
  • Industry specific labour skills dependent upon vocational training
  • Inter-firm research, product development and innovation based around strong industry associations

Comparative institutional advantage

On the basis of all this VOfC gives rise to a theory of comparative institutional advantage, which explains why particular types of products are produced in certain types of political economy.

In the export sector this gives rise to a distinction between production regimes with a tendency toward radical or incremental innovation.

How then will these different political economies (and political governmental regimes) adjust to international economic integration?

Politics of adjustment 

The theory of comparative institutional advantage suggests that countries will adjust toward ‘market oriented’ or ‘coordination oriented’ public policies when confronted with a crisis. Corporate firms are not the same, and will adjust very differently, as will governments. This is broadly true when we examine how countries initially adjusted to the Eurozone crisis.

VOfC has been critiqued from five different angles:

  • It presents a too static view of political economies and cannot adequately explain institutional change (divergence within convergence)
  • It underestimated the power of international finance and the importance of monetary regimes (particularly within Europe)
  • It ignores the central role of partisan politics and class conflict in shaping distributional outcomes (power resources)
  • It is an ideal type typology that is not deductively testable (methodologically problematic)
  • It places too much emphasis on the nation-state as the unit of analysis (in a world of supranational governance).

From a VOfC production regime perspective, welfare state development emerges from the strength not the weakness of employers, particularly in CMEs.

It is assumed that business interests will want social insurance, to insure against market risk, which in turn will enable them and their employees to invest in asset-specific skills. Absent this (i.e. in LMEs), there will be no encompassing welfare state development.

Is the VOfC perspective wedded to an understanding of the political economy of manufacturing? How relevant is this today?

New wave of comparative capitalist scholarship 

There have been two dominant responses to the VOfC paradigm, and structural changes in the economy, which have revolutionised the sectoral composition of the labour market, and the politics of money/finance and global capital: an electoral turn, and a macroeconomic turn.

  • The electoral turn focuses on electoral cleavages, and how these increasingly shape economic policymaking, and subsequently the politics of capitalist diversity.
  • The macroeconomic turn focuses on the determinants of aggregate demand (exports and consumption-led), and underlying class-distributional conflicts that shape these.

Both perspectives have dropped the focus on the corporate firm and state elites as political actors in their own right.

  • Another perspective (which I am sympathetic toward) focuses on the set of mutual dependencies that exist between business and the state. The politics of capitalist diversity is an outcome of divergent growth regimes, which are shaped by the quiet elite politics of the business-state relationship.

Discuss these in relation to the Eurozone crisis. Which perspective is better places to explain the origins and response to the Euro crisis?

Seminar 4: The Transformation of the European Economy Since 1945


What made the rapid economic growth in Europe possible after World War II? What explains the slow down?

Convergence or catch-up is usually defined as the process of transferring to Europe the technological and organizational knowledge that had been developed during the war years (in the USA).

The re-building of capital stock in Europe, and all the labour that was required to do this, spurred the initial period of growth. This was subsequently sustained by commercializing those new technologies that developed during the two world wars.

For Eichengreen (2007), Europe was singularly well suited to take advantage of this period of technological improvement.

It was facilitated by solidaristic trade unions, cohesive employer associations and growth-minded governments. Together they mobilized savings , financed investment and stabilized wage-income levels consistent with full employment.

  • It required a set of domestic institutions (formal and informal) and a public policy regime aimed at solving a set of problems that de-centralized markets could not. It required coordinated capitalism.

Economic institutions 

The origins of post-war industrial production in Western Europe, in effect, required systems of human capital formation (emphasizing apprenticeship training and vocational skills) and an active role for the state and social partners.

Convergence and catch-up was also attempted by the command economies in the Soviet states. The institutions of these countries had severe limitations. Extractive political regimes, as argued by Acemoglu and Robinson (2011), don’t last long.

Europe relied on extensive growth in the 30 year post-war period, which meant that a growth in factor inputs (labour and capital) accounted for the increase in productivity outputs.

But from the early 1970’s , and with the opening of the global economy, Europe faced a new set of problems; the challenge of intensive growth (which only intensified with liberalized capital markets).

This is growth that must occur through innovation, technological and productivity improvements (i.e. not just increasing the input of capital and labour). This proved a more difficult task as the domestic institutions in Europe that enabled extensive growth were now an impediment to reform.

Centrally planned economies were particularly inept at this.


European integration was directly related to this process of global economic change, as it required nation-states to liberalise their capital and product markets.

In the 1950’s six European states put the planning for their iron and steel industries under multinational control. In the 1960’s they built the first regional customs union (a free trade area with a common external tariff). These countries went on to construct the single market (1986) and a single currency (1992), as discussed previously.

But what exactly were the domestic institutions, associated with the golden age of European capitalism, which gave rise to post-war growth, high investment, rapid export growth, low inequality and wage moderation? How did these institutions change?

Can we generalize from this experience and say that domestic institutions are the determinants of long-term economic growth? If so, what exactly does this mean?

Four regimes

Peter Hall (2010) suggests that economic performance depends upon success in four institutional fields that differed in the 1950-1970’s (‘Keynesian’ era) and 1980-2000’s (‘neoliberal’ era):

  1. Production
  2. Labour relations
  3. Socioeconomic policy
  4. International

In Western Europe, the era of mass Fordist production required long-term capital investment (1 – production regime). This meant that firms needed certainty about aggregate demand and profits.

Collective bargaining ensured sufficient wage growth to maintain demand but also allowed profits to grow, whilst workers invested in specific skills (2 – labour relations regime).

At the same time national governments took active steps to manage aggregate demand aimed at full employment via the Keynesian welfare state (think the Rehn-Meidner model in Sweden (3 – socioeconomic policy regime).

Simultaneously international monetary regimes, such as the fixed exchange rate regime in the European Community, accommodated and tolerated this interventionist domestic demand management strategy (4 – international regime).


All of these economic institutions had deep political roots. They were not the outcome of an intelligent techno-rational engineer. Rather, for they were born out of distributional conflict, constructed by country specific electoral coalitions, which manifested itself in the various forms of the social state.

For Peter Hall the post-war distributional compromise was shaped by:

  1. Memory of war and recession
  2. Keynesian ideas that appealed to left and right
  3. Partisan electoral competition

In post-war Europe class-based distributive issues shaped electoral competition and the party-platforms of mass political parties.

Political parties of the left and right converged around the ‘mixed market economy and the a compensating social state’. This class-based electoral competition drove forward the development of wage-led growth regimes.

Can we identify an analogous institutional architecture for the subsequent era, from the 1980’s to the mid 2000’s?


Many call the period of structural economic change, from the 1980’s onwards, the ‘neoliberal’ period.

In terms of production, the major change was a structural shift away from manufacturing to services, particularly with respect to employment, outsourcing, and the emergence of new information technologies that have fundamentally re-shaped global supply chains (1 – production regime).

These structural economic changes, however, were made possible by shifts in the international monetary regime, which facilitated FDI, capital flows, off-shoring and global financial liberalization aimed at free capital movement (4 – international regime).

In response to growing labour market competition and skill-based technological change, collective bargaining has gradually shifted to the market (firm level) whilst trade union density rates declined in response to new forms of employment (2 – labour relations regime).

But perhaps most importantly the new socioeconomic regime meant governments were not concerned with managing aggregate demand but introducing supply-side reforms aimed at cost reduction (3 – socio-economic regime). Conceptually, you can think about this as a policy shift from the demand-side to the supply-side.

The role of economic ideas in shaping public policy preferences toward these political choices is important here. Wage inequality grew significantly, median incomes stagnated and growth rates were slower than previous decades.

The politics of liberalization

But what were the political conditions that made this shift to post-1980 market liberalism possible? Or more precisely, who were the actors? The electoral coalitions?

Peter Hall identifies the following factors:

  1. Memory of failed state intervention
  2. New classical economic ideas built on monetarist foundations
  3. Fragmented electoral competition

Politically, new electoral cleavages have emerged that cut across the left-right spectrum, and in turn, restructured political conflict. Class dealignment, declining voter turnout, shifts in occupation structure and rising electoral volatility meant parties have converged on “supply side policy choices”.

In the study of Varieties of Capitalism, this has led to debates about whether all countries are converging on a neoliberal model of capitalist development? There are certainly commonalities across European countries. But what about cross-national differences?

European varieties of capitalism

The policy response varies between countries in how they have sought to generate employment growth (i.e. in the absence of state commitment to sustaining aggregate demand).

  • In the liberal market growth model (particularly US and UK) private debt (primarily in mortgage markets and housing finance) replaced real wage increases to sustain aggregate demand.

Financial deregulation became a form of social policy, whilst cheaper imports enabled higher levels of consumption. The wealth effect, according to recent research, ensured political support.

In European social market economies two divergent approaches emerged.

  • In the small open Nordic economies the trajectory of liberalization meant an expansion of public services: healthcare, education, childcare, funded by high tax rates. These flexicurity regimes built on the Rehn-Meidner model.
  • In conservative welfare states the new response was built around expanding employment in secondary labour markets (Germany, Italy, Spain) by relaxing restrictions on part-time work and temporary contracts.

Most political economy research suggests that countries with “conservative welfare states” developed dual labour markets, divided into spheres of stable employment in the industrial and/or public sector, and precarious employment in the expanding private sector services.


Are we now entering a new ‘thirty year’ period that will change the architecture of European political economies? What will the trajectory look like?

Discuss. Most governments are building upon their previous growth regimes. How does this vary across European countries? Is there a ‘European’ wide growth regime?

Case study: post-war Germany (that is no more)

Prior to the late 1990’s Germany was governed by a set of domestic institutions that made for strong international competitiveness that facilitated high-wages and low inequality of incomes and living standards. How was this possible?

For Streeck (1998) the post-war institutional framework can be summarized as follows:

  1. Markets: price competition was mitigated by product specialization. Competitive markets (with strict competition laws) were designed to serve public purposes and to co-exist with an extensive social welfare state.
  2. Firms: these are considered social institutions and not just networks of private contracts or the property of shareholders. This incentivizes long-term relations with banks rather than relying on equity in the stock market.
  3. Labour: human skills in these export firms are considered a fixed productive asset that encourages employer investment in education and training. Co-determination and employment protection are high.
  4. State: the state is enabling rather than laissez faire. Sovereignty is divided horizontally and vertically, and constitutionally dedicated to competitive markets and a hard currency, whilst public spending on infrastructure and research is high. Spending on social protection is high because there is constitutional obligation to equalize living standards across the Länder.
  5. Associations: economic governance is delegated to centralized and economically sophisticated collective bargaining actors with quasi-public functions: skills, insurance, health and safety, product regulation, quality. Note: union-employer density is now in free-fall, along with bargaining coverage.
  6. Culture: savings rates are high and consumer credit low, which suggests that building long-term orientations are a social norm, and reflected in the qualification-based organization of work.

Beneficial constraints 

These densely regulated institutions imposed a beneficial constraint on employers, forcing them to compete on quality rather than price. However, three broader conditions to make this strategy successful had to be met:

  1. High global demand for product markets
  2. High investment in product innovation, research and development
  3. Steady supply of high-skilled labour/jobs (and therefore balanced against retirement)

Germany could not sustain the latter (it’s welfare system, and in particular, the cost of pensions). For Streeck, social institutions that rule out a low wage economy, in order to sustain a high wage economy, will eventually be overrun by market forces. This is what happened to Germany from the 1990’s onwards.

Germany initially responded to this by reducing retirement (cutting the labour supply of labour). But this became too costly in terms of pensions.

Eventually the government liberalized the labour market (Hartz I and II), leading to a rapidly expansive low-wage sector and an increasingly dualized workforce. This is an important observation, as it might explain the EU’s response to the Euro crisis in southern Europe.

Three factors can explain the transformation of German capitalism over the past decade.

  • Endogenous exhaustion of the institutions and a shift in the bargaining power of actors.
  • The shock of German unification, European integration and globalization.
  • Active management of wage restraint (and growing income inequality), and low-wage employment.


Discuss. Can the German social market economy be shifted upwards and exported to the EU as a whole?

For Streeck this is very difficult for four reasons:

  1. The EU is an international organization constructed through diplomacy not the class politics that gave rise to soziale Markwirtschaft
  2. The German firm is embedded in the broader institutional matrix of the German political economy that is not easily replicable.
  3. There is no EU wide state capacity to equalize living standards
  4. There are no collective bargaining associations with the capacity for high-skill investment

The German competitive market (and monetarism) was internationalized without the domestic socially corrective institutions. Europe got the German currency without their domestic politics.

Seminar 3: The Euro Trilemma and International Monetary Politics

In week one we discussed the trillemma associated with governing an open economy in an international market. A country can only have two of the following:

  • Full freedom of full capital movements
  • Fixed exchange rate
  • Independent monetary policy

A country with full capital mobility and fixed exchange rates loses the capacity to conduct a national monetary policy.

This week we are asking whether the EMU is a radical response to this trillemma? Countries gave up their monetary policy (and all the political adjustment tools this implies) in return for a shared currency and complete free movement of capital (but not a banking or capital markets union).

What are the costs of a monetary union?

The cost derives from the fact that when a country relinquishes its national currency it loses an instrument of economic policy i.e. it loses the ability to conduct a national monetary policy. It no longer has a national central bank.

This graph on divergent bond yields sets the scene for the series of crises that afflicted the Euro area since 2008.

When national central banks cease to exist, countries cannot use exchange rate adjustments as a policy instrument (devaluations and revaluations are ruled out). They also cannot change the short term interest rate.

Any adjustment must now take place via internal devaluation. What this means is that internal prices (think wages, rents etc) must be adjusted downwards, rather than the price of currency.

Theoretically, let’s assume a monetary union and take two countries, Spain and Germany.

If output (economic growth) declines in Spain and unemployment rises, whilst the opposite occurs in Germany (output increases and unemployment declines), how is it possible to bring both countries back into equilibrium?

  • This decline in output can be caused by either an external shock to aggregate demand, such as a financial crisis, or something as simple as a change in consumer preferences.

There are two possibilities in the classical theory of optimal currency areas: wage/price flexibility and mobility of labour.

First, if wages decline in Spain the aggregate supply curve shifts downwards whereas it shifts upwards in Germany (wage rises). This makes Spanish products more competitive (exports improve) whilst in Germany imports increase (domestic demand improves). This generates a balanced relationship.

Second, an additional mechanism that will lead to a new equilibrium involves the mobility of labour. Spanish unemployed workers will move to Germany where there is excess demand for labour. This leads to a decline in unemployment in Spain and avoids wage-inflationary pressure in Germany.

Absent these two mechanisms in a monetary union, Spain and Germany will be stuck in a bad equilibrium. It generates a long-term aggregate demand problem.

What would happen in a hard-peg and soft-peg currency regime?

Spain would either devalue the currency or adjust domestic interest rates whilst directly targeting the real exchange rate. The consequence of losing this tool of adjustment can be viewed here.

If wages are rigid and labour mobility is absent different countries in a monetary union will find it extremely difficult to adjust (and improve price competitiveness) when confronted with an asymmetric shock.

Unemployment will remain high in Spain and it will be faced with years of deflation whereas Germany is unlikely to push for a policy that undermines its competitiveness. Divergence between the two countries grows.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should.

The loss of monetary independence has another implication. Member-states issue debt in a foreign currency over which they have no control. Financial markets now have the power to force a default on these countries when faced with crisis. Think back to the divergence in bond yields, which started the sovereign debt crisis.

Lets take the case of the UK and Spain.

If UK investors fear a default they will sell their UK government bonds. Interest rates (bond yield) will rise and the price of the pound will drop. Pounds will be sold in the foreign exchange market. Capital will be forced to stay local.

Furthermore the British government can get the Bank of England to buy bonds. The debt market would stay liquid. British society has a lender of last resort. This acts as a bulwark against financial attack.

The UK can effectively finance debt through money creation. The tradeoff is higher inflation.

In Spain the opposite occurs. If a default risk arises investors will sell their bonds and re-invest them in a safer Euro region, say Germany. Money floods out of the Spanish banking system. The money supply shrinks.

Spain now faces a liquidity crisis. There is no lender of last resort. The Spanish government has no influence over the ECB. Spain is effectively borrowing in a foreign currency. A liquidity problem turns into a solvency problem.

In a monetary union short-term interest rates converge (good times of the Euro) but when faced with an asymmetric shock, long-term interest rates on government bonds diverge (bad times of the Euro).

This is what happened from 2008-2011 until Mario Draghi signaled that he would intervene in bond markets if necessary.

During the asymmetric shock, GDP and employment declines rapidly in one region (southern Eurozone) whilst it recovers more rapidly elsewhere (northern Eurozone). This reinforces pressure on fiscal policy. Budgets are cut. Taxes are increased.

This is the third cost of monetary union. Pro-cyclical fiscal policy deepens the monetary asymmetry.

In a monetary union this asymmetry in fiscal-budgetary responses to an asymmetric shock could be avoided with a budgetary union and the issuance of a common Euro bond (much like the fiscal equalization among the German Länder).

This provides an insurance and a protection mechanism for its members. But the EU budget amounts to only 1.1% of EU GDP whereas national budgets typically absorb 40-50% of GDP. Social welfare and public services remain at the national level.

Finally, the cost of monetary union is also related to differences in labour market and legal institutions.

Some countries have decentralized, flexible and market oriented labour markets (Ireland), other countries have centralized, regulated and coordinated labour markets (Germany).

These institutional differences also apply to mortgage markets, banking, taxation and corporate finance, to name but a few.

We will discuss these differences in more detail in our seminar on European varieties of capitalism.

What are the benefits of a monetary union?

While the costs of monetary union are usually associated with macroeconomic outcomes, the benefits are usually associated with microeconomic outcomes.

These benefits are primarily associated with the direct and indirect effects of eliminating transactions costs and ensuring price transparency.

Removing exchange rate risk facilities economic growth. According to the neoclassical model of technological change monetary union will expand trade. A single currency complements economies of scale.

Monetary union also spurs financial and capital market integration. This generates welfare gains. Markets are less uncertain about the future revenue of firms.

All of these benefits are reflected in a famous EC Commission report on ‘One Market, One Money‘ (1990).

Comparing the costs and benefits of monetary union is not just a technical exercise. When comparing costs and benefits it makes a huge difference as to what ‘model’ we use. These are related to ideas.

Monetarists and Keynesians look at the political economic world in very different ways.

For monetarists, national monetary tools are ineffective instruments to correct asymmetric shocks. Losing monetary sovereignty makes no difference.

Monetarists operate from the micro-foundations of classical political economy, which assumes price and wage flexibility (and if these are not flexible then policymakers ought to make them so i.e. cut the minimum wage).

Keynesians on the other hand see the world as full of rigidities (wages and prices are not flexible). National monetary policies and the exchange rate are powerful instruments in absorbing shocks. Losing sovereignty makes a big difference.

In trying to assess the cost-benefits of a monetary union what matters most is the extent of wage and price rigidities.

This leads to a division between economists operating from abstract-theoretical models (i.e. that assume by definition lower wages = more employment) and political economists operating from case-based empirical studies (i.e. that show there is no relationship between wage cuts and employment).

In the Euro area all labour market policies are focused on supply-side reforms. The monetarist argument dominates.

The monetary union has also exposed governability problems associated with democratic legitimacy. Governments have less capacity to shape the course of their domestic economies yet are accountable for it’s performance.

In world of free capital flows successful economic management has become much harder. Nation-states are weaker.

Unlike monetary policy (Europeanized)  fiscal and incomes policies (nationalized) are politicized policy instruments. The EU now affects all three.

For Fritz Scharpf in trying to maintain output legitimacy governments may undermine input legitimacy.

In conclusion, monetary union benefits some and imposes a cost on others. There are winners and losers.

In the absence of a federal union some countries such as the Benelux, Germany, and other export-oriented economies benefit. But can this be said for countries such as Italy, Greece, Portugal and possibly Spain?

To get a sense of these differences, lets examine the divergence in macroeconomic policies post-EMU.

Fritz Scharpf suggests that monetary union created the conditions for a sequence of three crises from 2008-2010. Banking crisis – credit squeeze – sovereign debt crisis.

Some consider the design of EMU to blame for the problems afflicting the Euro. Others blame the inability of southern European governments to impose tough structural reforms. Discuss.

What next for an incomplete monetary union?

Assuming that countries are not likely to leave a monetary union (even if they suffer years of one-sided deflation and austerity), is it possible to imagine a political-fiscal union emerging as a complement to monetary union?

This is a political question that requires giving up more national sovereignty and brings us back to the initial trilemma.

The European Monetary Union was a radical political response to the global economic trilemma: capital mobility combined with complete abandonment of national monetary sovereignty.

Member-states of the EMU have accepted deep economic integration. The choice is then between national politics (less integration) and shared policies (more integration).

If member-states accept more integration (which seems to be the case, for example, on banking union) then the choice is more democratic or technocratic decision-making (ECB, EU Commission).

Public opinion favors accountability so the choice is what type of policymaking governments should institute.

To complete the monetary union governments need to go down either the intergovernmental or federal route. EMU is stuck somewhere in the middle.

German voters don’t want a budgetary union, or a common Eurobond, and Irish voters don’t want tax harmonization.

Europe is stuck in a bad equilibrium.