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Difficult Policy Choices Await Europe As Recovery Gets Under Way

Factory worker in Tychy, Poland: emerging Europe climbing out of recession, projected to grow faster than advanced Europe (photo: Newscom)

REGIONAL ECONOMIC OUTLOOK

Difficult Policy Choices Await Europe As Recovery Gets Under Way

By Christoph Klingen
IMF European Department

October 20, 2010

  • Growth projected at 2 1/4 percent for Europe in 2010
  • Well designed fiscal consolidation, strengthening banks key in short run
  • Addressing governance issues, structural challenges will help build confidence

The IMF is predicting growth of 2 percent for Europe in 2010, according to the IMF’s latest Regional Economic Outlook.

While the recovery remains sluggish and uneven, it represents a turnaround for Europe, which was gripped by fears over sovereign solvency in May 2010 that threatened monetary union.

Emerging Europe is climbing out of its deepest post-transition recession and is projected to grow faster than advanced Europe, the report says.

Defying testing times

Six months ago, concerns about economic prospects in Europe ran high as strains in Greek sovereign bond markets started to spread to other countries and sectors. Amid tumbling equity markets and a sharply depreciating euro, doomsayers predicted a breakup of the euro area and a relapse of the global economy into recession.

The recovery has withstood the turmoil in financial markets thanks in large measure to a forceful policy response, including the establishment of the European Stabilization Mechanism to backstop EU governments with financing problems, the report points out. Europe’s economy is projected to expand by 2 percent this year and next (see table). However, the recovery is bound to remain modest and dependent on the pull of the global economy.

Policymakers face difficult choices as they tackle vulnerabilities while nursing a fledgling economic recovery. Fiscal policy needs to strike a delicate balance between supporting demand through deficits on the one hand, and addressing unsustainable debt dynamics and eroding market acceptance on the other.

Financial sector reform faces the dual task of reviving credit growth and strengthening a still vulnerable system (see chart). Implementing structural reforms to facilitate the necessary adjustment in the real economy will require strong political will during a time of high unemployment and uncertain economic prospects. A strengthened governance framework would help build much needed confidence.

Moderate recovery in advanced Europe

Advanced Europe emerged from recession in the second half of 2009 and is projected to grow at 1.7 and 1.6 percent this year and next. According to the report, these moderate growth rates reflect not only well known structural rigidities that limit potential growth, but also the temporary nature of the factors that were driving the recovery early on. Going forward, restocking, decisions to move ahead with frozen investment plans, and the rebound of exports are likely to make more limited contributions to growth. Moreover, the fiscal policy stance is set to become more restrictive.

Sustaining the recovery will require astute policies on a number of fronts. To fully restore confidence in the financial system, the report recommends that vulnerable banks be resolved, restructured, or recapitalized without delay, using the recent EU-wide stress tests as a road map. This would allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to exit from extraordinary liquidity measures before they become entrenched. And banks would be better positioned to step up still feeble lending, crucially to smaller firms that lack access to capital markets.

Growth-friendly fiscal consolidation

Getting fiscal consolidation right is perhaps the trickiest task. The report emphasizes that expenditure-based fiscal consolidation, especially when it tackles entitlement reforms, tends to be more growth friendly than tax hikes or cuts to public investment. Embedding fiscal consolidation into credible medium-term plans backed by concrete measures also helps.

The phasing of fiscal consolidation needs to be tailored to country-specific circumstances, the report says. Countries already under market pressure have no choice but to frontload fiscal adjustment. Countries with fiscal space can proceed less aggressively, including by delaying consolidation if the recovery proved weaker than expected. For the euro area, the overall projected fiscal stance is neutral in 2010 and turns mildly contractionary in 2011. The composition of the planned fiscal adjustment is broadly reassuring, but many countries should enhance the credibility of their plans, the report says.

Finding solutions to governance gaps

Policymakers should move swiftly to fill the gaps in the EU’s governance framework exposed by the crisis to build confidence and support the recovery. Progress is furthest along in the financial sector with the decision to establish European Supervisory Authorities and a European Risk Management Board in 2011. At the moment, policy makers are debating how to enhance fiscal governance. Broader structural reforms have so far been less of a priority, although they could contribute to redressing intra-euro area external imbalances and unlock growth potential, the report says.

Export-led recovery under way in emerging Europe

An export-led recovery is taking hold in emerging Europe, lifting growth rates to 3.9 and 3.8 percent this year and next, compared with a contraction of 6 percent in 2009, the report says. The legacy of the Great Depression is holding back domestic demand in much of the region. Growth is strongest in Turkey and Russia and weakest in south-eastern Europe.

The large external and internal imbalances that used to plague emerging Europe have largely disappeared. Current account positions improved massively in 2009 in the wake of economic adjustment and the recession. For emerging Europe, the current account was balanced overall in 2009 and is projected to broadly remain so this year and next, although a few smaller countries continue to post relatively large deficits, according to the report. Inflation pressures also subsided quickly with the Great Recession; the outlook for inflation remains generally benign.

Building fiscal credibility

Well designed fiscal consolidation and repair of banking systems are key policies to sustain the recovery and minimize risks, the report says. Emerging Europe is rightly planning to bring down its fiscal deficit significantly, from 6 percent of GDP in 2009 to 4.1 percent of GDP in 2011. Financing constraints are often binding, financial markets increasingly differentiate countries according to the health of their public finances, and government securities account for a large share of bank assets in many countries.

The report recommends that the same broad principles be followed concerning the composition and phasing of fiscal consolidation as in advanced Europe, as a means to enhance credibility in financial markets. For countries outside the EU’s fiscal framework, national fiscal rules are a particularly valuable commitment tool.

Encouraging credit growth

Lowering supply constraints to credit growth is an important ingredient for the recovery, the report says. With the exception of Turkey, Belarus, and Serbia, credit growth has remained very low or in negative territory so far, reflecting the drying up of financing from abroad and rising nonperforming loans. The sooner banks recognize loan-losses and recapitalize, the sooner they will be able to regenerate loan growth.

Governments can indirectly support the process, the report says. Credible macroeconomic policies foster a low interest rate environment conducive to credit growth. And enhanced international cooperation on financial sector policies, along the lines of the recent Nordic-Baltic Cooperation Agreement, would help further reduce uncertainty.

In search of a new growth model

In the long term, many countries in the region will need to build new engines of growth. Projected growth rates remain low by historical standards. The report argues that this partly reflects frictions associated with shifting economic structures in emerging Europe to the tradable sector (for instance, manufacturing) from the nontradable sector (for instance, housing and financial services), which had been inflated by a credit and demand boom that was fueled by the inflow of foreign capital.

Much of the adjustment is already under way as the incentives to produce traded goods have increased. Policies can support this adjustment: wages policies can help align wages and productivity, structural reforms can address skill mismatches, and investment in education and infrastructure can help attract foreign direct investment into the tradable sector.


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