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Archive for the ‘Spain’ Category

Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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If there was a prize for fighting back against tax authorities, the Italians would probably deserve first place. I’m not aware of any other country where tax offices get firebombed. The Italians also believe in passive forms of resistance, with tens of thousands of boat owners sailing away to protect themselves from the government.

But the Spanish are beginning to get into the swing of things, perhaps because they are increasingly upset by the plethora of tax hikes imposed by the supposedly right-of-center government in Madrid.

Here’s part of a report from NPR about a new tax revolt on the Iberian Peninsula.

When the Spanish government hiked sales tax on theater tickets this past summer, Quim Marcé thought his theater was doomed. With one in four local residents unemployed, Marcé knew that even a modest hike in ticket prices might leave the 300-seat Bescanó municipal theater empty.

So what did he do to protect the theater from fiscal destruction?

Taxes are revolting, so why aren’t you?

“We said, ‘This is the end of our theater, and many others.’ But then the next morning, I thought, we’ve got to do something, so that we don’t pay this 21 percent, and we pay something more fair,” says Marcé in Spanish. …He…suddenly had an idea: Instead of selling tickets to his shows, he’d sell carrots. “We sell one carrot, which costs 13 euros [$16] -– very expensive for a carrot. But then we give away admission to our shows for free,” he explains in Spanish. “So we end up paying 4 percent tax on the carrot, rather than 21 percent, which is the government’s new tax rate for theater tickets.” Classified as a staple, carrots are taxed at a much lower rate and were spared new tax hikes that went into effect here on September 1.

Very clever. Senor Marcé is getting lots of praise for his novel approach, though it’s unclear whether the ravenous tax bureaucrats will come up with some sort of ruling to squash the tax revolt.

Spanish media have dubbed this the “Carrot Rebellion,” and the Bescanó theater has won kudos from arts advocates nationwide. Shows are sold out. …Marcé, the theater director, says he consulted a lawyer before launching his carrot sales. He’s got backing from the local mayor too. And no one has stopped him so far. …He says he’s a little worried the government might declare it illegal to sell carrots at theaters. But dozens of foods are considered “staples” and taxed at only 4 percent. So if that happens, Marcé says he might switch to selling tomatoes instead.

And if he has some leftover tomatoes that are rotten, perhaps they can be used – along with spoiled eggs and moldy cabbage – to express appreciation for any tax collectors that happen to visit (I won’t say what the carrots can be used for).

So why doesn’t the title of this post award “three cheers” for this Spanish tax revolt?

Well, as much as I admire non-compliance when tax systems are too onerous, I suspect that these Spaniards are protesting against the idea that they should pay for big government, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they very much support a bloated welfare state if someone else is picking up the tab.

In other words, they’re probably hypocrites, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that their Irish and Greek compatriots also are protesting for the wrong reason.

Moreover, it’s not specified in the article, but I’m quite certain that the Spaniards actually are protesting in favor of tax distortions. The 4 percent tax on carrots and other “staples” presumably is a special exception to the normal value-added tax of 21 percent.

If they were protesting the VAT, I would give them three cheers, but if they’re simply protesting the fact that theater tickets are now treated the same as most other forms of consumption, then I’m tempted to give this tax revolt only one cheer.

But I’ll still give them two cheers because I’m in favor of just about anything that will reduce the amount of money diverted to finance government.

That’s because the real fiscal problem, in Spain and the United States, is that government is far too big. And trying to curb the rapacious appetites of politicians with a tax hike is akin to trying to cure a group of alcoholics by giving them the keys to a liquor store.

P.S. The greedy Spanish government may have jacked up some tax rates so high that they could be beyond the revenue-maximizing point, though I doubt the politicians care. Heck, even international bureaucracies such as the IMF have figured out that it’s self-destructive to push tax rates so high that governments lose revenue.

P.P.S. Just to cover my you-know-what, allow me to take this opportunity to stress that maximizing revenue should not be the goal of tax policy. I’m a big fan of the Laffer Curve, to be sure, but policy makers should target the growth-maximizing point.

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I’ve shared evidence from around the world (England, Italy, the United States, and France) and from various states (IllinoisOregonFlorida,Maryland, and New York) to argue that it is foolish to ignore the Laffer Curve.

Not that it makes any difference. I’m slowly coming the conclusion that my friends on the left will never learn – in large part because they’re more interested in punishing success with class warfare tax policy than they are in collecting extra revenue for government.

But surely there are some statists who are motivated by emotions other than spite, so I refuse to give up. Let’s look at some evidence from Spain to further confirm that high tax rates aren’t necessarily the way to maximize tax revenue (this also is a story showing that tax competition between nations is a good way of disciplining governments that are too greedy, but that’s another issue).

Here are some details from a CNBC report.

Spain’s corporate tax take has tumbled by almost two thirds from pre-crisis levels as small businesses fail and a growing number of big corporations seek profits abroad to compensate for the prolonged downturn at home. …Spain has a headline corporate tax rate of 30 percent, broadly in line with other large European economies. Switzerland, however, has a headline rate of 8.5 percent, and lawyers say deductions can be made to reduce this further. “A fundamental right of EU law is the freedom of establishment. All companies and taxpayers look after their tax affairs, and if they can pay a lower rate somewhere else, it’s better for their business and natural that they would do so,” a global tax lawyer based in Spain said. …Rajoy did eliminate some corporate tax breaks in 2012, a policy he will continue in 2013, and has also brought forward some tax payments, though that could be storing up problems.

Much of the decline in corporate tax revenue can be attributed to Spain’s dismal economy, of course, which has been exacerbated by a bunch of tax hikes imposed by a supposedly right-of-center government.

The one tax rate that hasn’t been increased, though, is the top rate of corporate tax. So how can this be a story about the Laffer Curve?

Well, sometimes standing still is a recipe for defeat. And sometimes moving in the right direction isn’t enough when everybody else is going in the right direction at a faster rate.

Here’s a chart showing changes in the average EU corporate tax rate compared to Spain’s corporate tax rate.

Spain’s corporate tax rate has dropped by five percentage points. That’s progress, but other nations have moved more rapidly in the right direction. Back in 1995, the Spanish corporate rate was slightly lower than the EU average. Now it’s noticeably higher.

And as the excerpt above notes, there are nations such as Switzerland that have far lower tax rates and much better fiscal policy.

To be sure, Spain’s main challenge is the need to dramatically reduce the burden of government spending. That will help long-run growth because more resources will be allocated by private markets.

But Spain also should seek an immediate boost to growth by reducing tax rates on productive behavior. A lower corporate tax rate should be part of the answer.

It also would be a good idea for the United States.

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With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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Late last year, Spanish voters kicked out a socialist government and elected a new government led by the supposedly conservative People’s Party.

Is that translating into smaller government and more freedom? Doesn’t look that way. It seems that Spanish right-of-center politicians are just as useless and statist as the faux conservatives in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The ballots haven’t even gotten cold and the new government is proposing a bevy of new taxes. Here are some of the grim details from Tax-news.com, including a class-warfare increase in the top tax rate.

…the incoming Spanish government, headed by Mariano Rajoy, is to introduce higher taxes from 2012 contrary to the party’s pre-election pledge. …The government has announced numerous tax hikes worth EUR6.2bn, for introduction in 2012, including income tax increases across the board, ranging from a 0.75% increase in the tax rate applicable on income of EUR9,500, to a 7% hike for those earning above EUR300,000. Savings income will also be subject to higher taxes under the proposals. Personal savings of up to EUR6,000 will be subject to a 2% rate; with additional rates of 4% on savings income up to EUR24,000 and 6% above this threshold.

By the way, all these tax hikes are in addition to an increase last year in the value-added tax, which was boosted from 16 percent to 18 percent.

Could it be, though, that tax increases are necessary because Spain has already cut spending? As you might imagine, that’s a joke.

According to OECD data, government spending jumped from 39.2 percent of GDP in 2000 to 45.6 percent of GDP in 2010. Equally relevant, EU data shows that government spending almost doubled in the past 10 years.

In other words, Spain is screwed. The new government is just as bad – or perhaps even worse – than the previous government. I wrote two years ago that Spain was in trouble because of over-spending and I see no reason to change my analysis now. Actually, I have changed my analysis. Spain is going down the toilet even faster.

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Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart (2011 data) shows the same countries, and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

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Like other forms of so-called stimulus spending, the money devoted to supposed “green” energy programs has been a net drain on the economy. This is hardly a surprise, particular since the much-trumpeted Spanish experiment turned out to be a flop, destroying two jobs elsewhere in the economy for every green job created. But what is surprising is that the political crowd in Washington seems to be getting the message. The Washington Times reports that even the left if backing away from flushing more money down this hole.
Noticeably absent from President Obama’s latest economic-stimulus package are any further attempts to create jobs through “green” energy projects, reflecting a year in which the administration’s original, loudly trumpeted efforts proved largely unfruitful. The long delays typical with environmentally friendly projects – combined with reports of green stimulus funds being used to create jobs in China and other countries, rather than in the U.S. – appear to have killed the administration’s appetite for pushing green projects as an economic cure. …Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, said much of the green stimulus funding was “squandered.” “Large grants to build green buildings don’t generate many new jobs, except for a few architects,” he said. “Subsidies for windmills and solar panels created lots of jobs in China,” but few at home. …Despite the massive infusion of government funding in recent years, renewable technologies have captured only a tiny share of the energy market and remain heavily dependent on government funding to be viable. Because of the need to constantly renew government funding, private investors remain skittish about committing to new projects.

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I arrived in Madrid yesterday for a speech to the annual Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, and it is somehow fitting that Spain was downgraded by Standard and Poor’s as I entered the country. I’m not a fan of the bond-rating agencies, and the fact that it has taken so long for Spain to be downgraded simply reinforces my skepticism about their value. So let’s focus instead on identifying the sources of Spain’s fiscal crisis. If you look at the OECD’s fiscal database, you will see that Spain’s short-run problem is solely the result of a growth in the burden of government spending. Over the past seven years, the budget in Spain has skyrocketed from 38.4 percent of GDP to 47.2 percent of GDP. And since tax revenues have stayed the same as a share of national economic output, it is difficult to see how anyone can conclude that the fiscal crisis is the result of inadequate revenue. In the long run, the problem also is excessive government spending, largely because demographic factors such as an aging population will push up outlays for pensions and health care.

In other words, Spain is in trouble for the same reason that Greece is in trouble. Government is too big and politicians are unwilling to take the modest steps that are needed to rein in dependency. This, of course, is exactly why there should not be a bailout. Subsidizing Greek politicians and Spanish politicians – regardless of whether the bailout comes from German taxpayers and/or the IMF – will send a signal to other European nations that there is an easy way out. But the “easy way out” simply postpones the day of reckoning and makes the eventual adjustment much more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post report:

European and International Monetary Fund officials on Wednesday were considering a dramatically increased $158 billion bailout package for Greece as the country’s debt crisis continued to ripple across Europe, with Standard & Poor’s downgrading the credit rating on Spain, the continent’s fourth-largest economy. …In Europe, the most intense focus remains on Greece, but fears were intensifying elsewhere, especially in Portugal and Spain. Though analysts noted that both countries are in better shape than Greece — with lower ratios of debt — they both shared large fiscal deficits and poor long-term economic prospects. On Wednesday, the government in Portugal announced that it would move up a program of painful spending cuts to shrink its budget deficit and shore up confidence amid signs that fearful depositors were moving capital out of Lisbon banks. After lowering Greek debt to junk bond status on Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s kept Spain at investment grade status, but lowered its rating one notch, to AA.

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