When will we know if Irish pre-emptive fiscal austerity is a failure?

Brad DeLong asks:

When would it be time to judge the Irish experiment in preemptive fiscal austerity to be a failure, Tyler?

The immediate question is whether Ireland had a choice in the first place.  When it comes to total external debt, private plus public, Ireland is in one of the most desperate situations.  (Be careful, though, some published figures include financial institutions to which the Irish government has no real liability and thus overstate Irish external debt by quite a bit).  Ireland doesn't have the same flexibility as do Germany and the United States, nothing close to that.  Read this article for an estimate of the change in primary fiscal balance required for Ireland; it's scary and doesn't indicate a lot of flexibility, which supports the conventional wisdom on Ireland, from the OECD, the European Commissionfrom Ireland itself, and arguably you add the IMF to that list as well. 

Furthermore, Ireland as a small, open economy experiences a relatively high degree of fiscal leakage.

By the way, you shouldn't simply assume that the initial fifteen plunge in gdp was due to fiscal caution; Ireland was after Iceland perhaps the most overextended country in the crisis.

Here's a Morgan Stanley analysis of Ireland, which basically suggests "it's complicated."  It also suggests a reasonable chance the current strategy will work out OK.  It is complicated, and the mere fact that spending is a component of national income accounts doesn't mean that more spending is always a good thing. 

Ireland in fact has done a negative fiscal stimulus.  Earlier, Ireland made the mistake of joining the Eurozone.  See also this study of Ireland, 1987-89, an earlier decisive and successful fiscal adjustment, in the days of the Irish Punt.  The Euro today makes matters harder for Ireland, yet that doesn't imply they have greater license to spend today, in fact it can imply the contrary.

Paul Krugman pointed out that the fiscally tighter Ireland did not have a better CDS price than the more wishy-washy Spain.  Yet Ireland has a bigger external debt problem, may be less protected by "too big to fail," is a smaller nation, and has less control over its destiny; the (roughly) equal price may reflect what is a superior Irish effort.  In any case, Spain is hardly a walking advertisement for not going the Irish route.

The Irish also hope that whatever output they "leave on the table" today, they can make up with Solow catch-up growth.

If you would like to read a brief on behalf of Irish stimulus, try this.  The author admits that Ireland would have to significantly raise corporate taxes, a former linchpin of its growth (whether you think that efficiency-enhancing or international rent-seeking, it is still true).  Is it worth it?  How much would such a policy damage Irish growth and credibility?

Kevin O'Rourke also has good but scattered writings on the topic of Irish stimulus.  His first preference is greater fiscal federalism within the EU.  Last month he also wrote that, lacking such a reform, Ireland had no choice.

This June, Irish consumer confidence hit a three-year high.  Here's one estimate that wages have been falling four to five percent a year, and will continue to fall, plus the Euro has been falling.  You could argue there has already been an adjustment in the twenty-five percent range.  None of that is proof of recovery, but there are some green shoots.  Here is the very latest report, indicating that economic growth may be resuming; admittedly it's just a forecast from the government.  Exports are showing growth and retail sales are rising slightly.

The Irish Times reports today: "For the first time in three years, there are now more reasons for hope than for despair.  This week a raft of indicators, when taken together, give grounds to believe that the foundations of a jobs-generating recovery are falling into place."

Do interpret that with extreme caution.  For various debates, follow The Irish Economy blog, including in the comments.

On these critical questions, in the pro-stimulus for Ireland posts, I don't see a level of detail which would rebut these quite mainstream, not-emanating-from-the-gamma-quadrant opinions — that the Irish did more or less the right thing in a very unpleasant situation. 

The Irish experiment remains an open book.  In the meantime, it's simply not true that the pre-emptive austerity advocates are committing some kind of economic malpractice.  Three years out from now, let's compare Ireland to the other PIIGS.


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