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The statistical backbone of the new European economic governance: the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure Scoreboard
During this process, the Commission uses several instruments to assess the situation of
individual member states. One of them has pre-eminence: the Alert Mechanism report, based
on the Macroeconomic Imbalances Procedure (MIP) Scoreboard. It is via this Scoreboard,
which consists of eleven indicators44, that it is decided whether a country is suffering from
“potential imbalances”. If this is judged to be the case, this country is subject to an “in-depth
review” which may finally lead to recommendations45.
The purpose of this chapter is critically to assess the nature and content of this
Scoreboard. Section I presents the methodology of the indicators and their role in sustaining
sanctions against deviant Member states. Section II offers a critical presentation of the ten
indicators included in the Scoreboard. Section III presents the theoretical model, which can be
derived from the Scoreboard, as well as its shortcomings.
1. From indicators to sanctions
1.1. The qualities of the indicators
The crisis has demonstrated the need for better coordination of economic policies.
However, as long as these remain national, the chosen path has been to ask each country to
follow the same roadmap. Or, more precisely, EU member states have decided to ask
themselves, in a set of new procedures, to follow new, more stringent guidelines. After all,
none of the policies detailed below are EU policies, unlike the Common Agricultural Policy
or the euro. They remain national in aim and scope: what has been created is a common
system for monitoring what the other member states are doing, not a common programme of
action for EU member states.
The Commission was asked to submit a “proposal” for the Scoreboard (EC, 2011),
which was to be endorsed by the Council of the EU (2011)46. The Scoreboard47 initially
consisted of a list of ten indicators addressing both internal and external imbalances. Its aim
was to “provide an early-warning signalling device of potentially harmful macroeconomic
imbalances in Member States”. However, the authors of the Scoreboard insisted that there
was “no automaticity”: the fact that a member state breached a threshold did not necessarily
mean that it is suffering an imbalance, as other sources of information would be used.
The document states a number of qualities expected from the selected indicators. They
should “focus on the most relevant dimensions of macroeconomic imbalances and
competitiveness losses”, with particular attention to the euro area. However, there is no clear
foundation for the choice of indicators. The European Parliament has pointed out the absence
The initial proposal included ten indicators, to which a financial sector indicator was added in 2012 (EC,
The introduction of the Scoreboard was established by Article 4 of Regulation (EU) N° 1176/2011 of the
European Parliament and the Council of 16 November 2011 on the prevention and correction of macroeconomic
The Council made a few remarks, such as the need to take into account indicators of productivity and of the
The Scoreboard can be found here:
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of “a single specific reference” in the Commission’s document and it criticised the lack of
methodology and the absence of a bibliography (European Parliament, 2011).
Secondly, the indicators and the thresholds should “provide reliable signalling devices”
at “an early stage” (EC, 2011). In particular, thresholds should be set “at prudent levels”, so as
to avoid “false alarms” while being able at the same time to detect problems at a sufficiently
early stage. The solution adopted to meet these difficult criteria is a statistical one, with the
thresholds being set as the lower and upper quartiles of the distribution of members’ states
achievements for the variable of choice. It should be remarked, however, that among the 10
indicators chosen, only 2 were presented with both a lower and a upper threshold48.
In other words, a member state is said to experience an imbalance not when the
indicator breaches a level calculated on the basis of economic theory or history, but when the
member state drifts apart from other EU members. This is of course a very raw measure,
which does not say much about a country’s economic situation. For instance, if a loss of
market share in exports is due to a surge in domestic activity which leads firms to sell at home
rather than abroad, it is hard to claim that this changed international position is problematic.
On the other hand, a country may well be below a threshold while experiencing serious
difficulties, such as when the unemployment rate surges from 6% to 9% without breaching
the 10% limit.
Additionally, the document asserts that indicators should be of high statistical quality,
i.e. derived from data compiled according to the principles of the European Statistics Code of
Practice of the European Statistical System (ESS). In practice, Eurostat sources are used or,
when not available, the “highest quality alternative data source” should be chosen (e.g. the
1.2. From the Scoreboard to sanctions
As stated by the corresponding EU Regulation N° 1176/2011, if imbalances are
detected, the European Parliament, the Council and the Eurogroup are informed. The Council
may then make recommendations to member states. In the case of “excessive imbalances”,
the Council’s recommendation shall “specify a set of policy recommendations to be followed”
as well as a “deadline” within which the Member State is to submit a “corrective action plan”.
The next step is the assessment of the corrective action plan by the Council.
Technically, this involves the adoption of a new recommendation by the Council,
implementation of which is then monitored by the Commission. The Commission also has the
right to “carry out enhanced surveillance missions” in member states being monitored. In the
case of Eurozone members, representatives of the ECB can be invited as well.
The third step is an assessment of the corrective actions undertaken by the Member
State. If these are judged insufficient and if the Commission so recommends, the Council
adopts a decision of non-compliance. It should be noted that the Commission’s
recommendation is deemed to have been adopted by the Council. This is the case unless the
As noted by the European Parliament, “The Commission working document does not contain an explanation
of the inappropriateness of setting both upper and lower thresholds for most of the indicators” (European
Council decides, by qualified majority, to reject the recommendation within ten days. If the
corrective actions recommended are implemented, the excessive imbalance procedure is held
in abeyance while the monitoring continues. The procedure is finally ended when the Council,
following a recommendation from the Commission, decides to abrogate its recommendations.
1.3. Indicators as proofs of imbalances
The ambiguity regarding the role of the Scoreboard indicators persists in the
Regulation: while an entire monitoring process is based on them, the Regulation insists that
they are not “goals for economic policy”, but mere “tools”. After all, when undertaking an
“economic interpretation” of the Scoreboard, the Commission is asked to “pay close
attention” to “developments in the real economy” such as economic growth, employment and
This means in particular that when a member state is identified as requiring an in-depth
review, the review should be undertaken “without the presumption that an imbalance exists”.
However, it is precisely the suspicion that such an imbalance exists that motivated the indepth review in the first place. It is therefore no surprise that this call for caution is
immediately contradicted as the Regulation stresses “the need for policy action in member
states showing persistently large current-account deficits and competitiveness losses”
(emphasis added). In this case then, a couple of indicators entail immediate action, regardless
of “country-specific economic conditions and circumstances”. In the same vein, member
states that accumulate large current-account surpluses should “implement measures that help
strengthen their domestic demand and growth potential”, once again regardless of their
overall economic situation.
This use of the Scoreboard indicators is consistent with the EU’s view of the nature of
the crisis, which is seen as the result of “divergences in competitiveness”. The purpose of the
procedure is thus to restore national competitiveness. Measures member states are asked to
take “potentially include fiscal and wage policies, labour markets, product and services
markets and financial sector regulations.” Thus they may cover the entire economy – and
society –, which of course contradicts the spirit of EU treaties, according to which fiscal and
social policies remain national competences. This is probably why the Regulation goes on to
clarify that, in sanctioning a member state, the Council should “fully respect the role of
national parliaments and social partners”, in particular regarding “systems for wage
Finally, in this “broadened” surveillance of member states’ economic policies, a
“stronger role” is allocated to the Commission, which draws up the recommendations on
which the Council’s decisions are based. The major innovation, introduced by the European
Semester and retained by the MIP, is the reverse majority voting according to which the
Council can reject a decision by the Commission only if there is a majority against it. In this
new governance, there is virtually no role for the European Parliament, which is not consulted
on recommendations and can only “invite” the heads of the Council and of the Commission to
appear before the relevant committee to discuss the decisions adopted.
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The Scoreboard thus plays a key role in determining whether a country is experiencing
imbalances or not. The next section looks in detail into the composition of the Scoreboard.
2. The Scoreboard
The eleven indicators of the completed Scoreboard can be divided into four categories:
the external position of the member states; competitiveness; housing prices and debts; and
2.1. Exports as the way out?
Three of the indicators are intended to ensure that a country is sufficiently competitive
and attractive. They measure:
• the current account position, as a percentage of GDP (3 years backward moving
average, with a threshold of +6% and - 4% of GDP);
• the net international investment position, as a percentage of GDP (lower threshold of 35% of GDP);
• export market shares (5 years percentage change, with a lower threshold of -6%).
The aim of these three indicators is to assess how well a given member state performs
vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This shows that, for the EU, the main problem is the
accumulation of trade deficits, particularly in the Southern economies (Greece, Spain, Italy,
Portugal) and France. It is only in theory that trade deficits and surpluses are treated equally,
as the absence of upper threshold shows. In fact, as the Council of the EU (2011) made clear,
“unlike current account deficits, large and sustained current account surpluses (…) will not
lead to sanctions”.
This insistence on trade overlooks the fact that, as exchange rates cannot adjust within
the Eurozone, there is no compensation mechanism: export countries see their exports benefit
from their currency’s lack of appreciation, while deficit countries cannot resolve their position
by devaluing theirs (Jeong, Mazier and Saadaoui, 2010). Thus to require deficit countries to
restore equilibrium is to impose a harsh price on them, as developments in Southern Europe
Besides, it should be noted that some countries’ deficits are the counterpart of others’
surpluses. It is of course impossible for all European countries to become surplus countries.
Hence, insisting on export market shares means that instead of promoting cooperation or
complementarity between its member states, the EU is seeking to make competition ever
harsher, with no net collective gain to be obtained.
The second indicator considers the difference between the foreign assets held by a
member state and the assets held by foreigners in the member state in question. However,
globalization and the removal of national regulations have rendered measurement so
complicated that it was revised by the OECD (2008), which led, for instance, to a 40% drop in
the estimated stock of foreign direct investments in France (Askenazy, 2009). Besides,
official statistics substantially underestimate the net foreign asset positions of rich countries,
as they fail to capture most of the assets held by households in offshore tax havens (Zucman,
It is to be stressed that there are no upper thresholds either for the net international
investment position or for export market shares. According to the Scoreboard, a country
should not import too much, but it can never be accused of exporting too much.
The intent of these three indicators is to establish a diagnosis of un-competitiveness, which is
to be cured by acting on the next two indicators.
2.2. Cutting wages to foster competitiveness
The next indicator monitors labour costs, which are to be kept as low as possible. It
• the 3 years percentage change in nominal unit labour costs (with thresholds of +9% for
Eurozone countries and +12% for non-Eurozone countries);
The surveillance of labour costs and prices aims to ensure that the country keeps its
production costs under control49. Here again, while there is an upper limit on nominal unit
labour cost, there is no lower bound: having wages fall in a country is not considered to be a
threat to Eurozone stability. This goes against the view of many economists on the role of
stagnant wages in Germany in depressing demand in the EU (Stockhammer and Onaran,
Furthermore, the link between rising wages and trade deficits may not be as
straightforward as it seems. For instance, Daniel Gros (2012) remarks that the evolution of
wages is not a correct predictor of export shares in the EU, which remained stable between
2000 and 2010 for Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. More generally, Gaulier et al. (2012)
note the absence of any link between the evolution of wages and exports for Eurozone
However, the insistence on controlling labour costs has taken pre-eminence in EU
economic governance, with the ratification of the Euro-Plus Pact (European Council, 2011),
which was signed by the heads of states of the Eurozone plus six other countries (Bulgaria,
Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania). Aimed at fostering competitiveness, the
Pact invites member states to put an end to the indexation of wages on prices and to ensure
that wage settlements in the public sector “support the competitiveness efforts in the private
Here again, wages are required to remain below productivity. The fact that this means
depressed demand is not mentioned. What has probably been the major imbalance of the EU
for decades, namely the fact that profits have risen faster than GDP, is not addressed. This is
so even if the Commission itself (2007), along with many major institutions such as the IMF
and the OECD, have pointed out the widening gap between the wage share and the share of
profits (Husson, 2010).
Member states are also asked to “decentralise wage bargaining”, in order to align wages
locally with productivity and thus foster job creation. But, according to the OECD (2004), “no
robust associations” are to be found between the level of wage bargaining and employment.
It is somewhat surprising that a direct measure of inflation was not included, as proposed for instance by the
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On the contrary, inequalities and poverty rise when wages are negotiated in firms rather than
at a higher level (Damiani et al., 2011; OECD, 2004).
This case shows the fragility of EU governance by indicators: first, on the procedural
level, it is not clear how forcing countries to decentralize wage negotiations “respects national
traditions of social dialogue and industrial relations”. Second, the recommended measure has
known adverse effects on key social issues such as inequalities and poverty, without having
clear benefits in terms of jobs. Last, it is not obvious why high wages are such a problem, as
they appear not to be linked to exports. On the contrary, there is a serious risk that ending the
indexation of wages on prices and cutting public-sector wages will further depress demand in
Europe and worsen the crisis (Janssen, 2013).
The other indicator of competitiveness monitors exchange rates, by looking at:
• the 3 years percentage change in real effective exchange rates (based on deflators),
relative to 35 other industrial countries, with thresholds of -/+5% for Eurozone countries and /+11% for non-Eurozone countries.
This indicator takes into account two factors: the evolution of prices here and abroad
(this is the role of deflators) and the market shares of the country in question in foreign
markets. As such, this indicator seems well suited to measuring imbalances in national trade
positions, especially as the thresholds adopted here symmetrical, with rises and falls given
The next set of indicators deals with private and public deficits, as well as developments
in the housing market.
2.3. Watching bubbles, finally?
Surveillance of deficits has always been at the core of European economic governance,
with the requirements laid down by the Maastricht treaty (1992) for candidate countries to the
euro, and the creation of the Stability and Growth Pact in 1997 (Amsterdam Treaty).
However, this monitoring was limited to the public sector: private deficits were not
considered dangerous, as they allegedly resulted from informed decisions taken by rational
However, the crisis proves this analysis wrong. Indeed, two of the countries that
experienced the most severe difficulties, Ireland and Spain, were praised for their low debt
and public budget surpluses before the crisis hit50. These economies were characterised by a
housing bubble made possible by high levels of private debt51. And it was the bursting of this
bubble that caused the severe recession in which Irlande was entrapped between 2008 and
2010, while Spain experienced a “double dip” recession, which ended in 2014.
The Scoreboard reflects the lessons of the crisis by seeking to contain the rise in private
debts, both in flows and stocks. It monitors:
• private sector debt as a percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 160%;
• private sector credit flows as a percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 15%;
Spain enjoyed a budget surplus in 2007 (1.9% of GDP) together with a low level of debt (36.3% of GDP). The
figures for Ireland were 0.1% and 25.1%.
222% of GDP in Ireland and 215% in Spain in 2007, compared to an EU average of 152%.
These indicators are standard, and they do point to important imbalances within the
economy concerned. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the content of debts should matter as
well as their level (ESRB, 2011). Finally, it should be noted that the private debt threshold is
set far below the upper quartile of the distribution (222 % of GDP, for the Netherlands).
The Scoreboard also seeks to contain house prices, measuring:
• the year-on-year changes in house prices relative to a Eurostat consumption deflator,
with a threshold of 6%;
This is a necessary innovation, as soaring real estate prices are a major issue for
households in many European countries. It is to be regretted, however, that the threshold was
not set at a lower level, given the need to reduce housing costs in many places in order to
restore living standards.
It was also decided to put an upper limit on the growth of the financial sector, with a
• the year-on-year changes in financial sector liabilities, with a threshold of 16,5%.
This indicator measures the evolution of the deposits, securities, loans, shares, etc. due
to financial institutions (European Commission, 2012). In the economic interpretation of
member states’ situation, this indicator is complemented by a debt-to-equity ratio that
measures the amplifying effect of the financial sector on the economy52. It is uncertain
whether the thresholds are set at sufficiently low levels to avoid future financial crises.
Finally, the Maastricht criterion for public debt is retained, with the monitoring of:
• general government sector debt in percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 60%.
While monitoring of national debts is certainly warranted, given that the ECB cannot
bail out member states, it is to be noted that the threshold at 60% is breached by 17 member
states (for the third quarter of 2015). In fact, using the definition of the “upper quartile” gives
the value of 99% of GDP (for Spain) – not 60%. Also, one wonders what the 60% threshold
means for countries such as Greece (where debt reaches 171% of GDP), Italy (135%),
Portugal (131%), Cyprus (110%) or Belgium (109%). Lastly, asking member states to reduce
their debts all at once can only extend the recession in Europe, as demand will be cut in all
Then comes what is probably the most important indicator for Europeans, the
2.4. Unemployment: a measure of the rigidity of economies?
For the first time ever, the Commission included the unemployment rate in a list of
compliant indicators. It decided to monitor:
• the 3 years backward moving average of unemployment rate, with a threshold of 10%.
While the inclusion of the unemployment rate may be seen as a renewed concern with
social issues, this is probably not the best way to look at this. For the Commission, a high
unemployment rate is the proof of a rigid economy. Widespread joblessness is perceived as a
However, the European Systemic Risk Board’s proposal to monitor short terms liabilities (ESRB, 2011), on
the grounds that liquidity issues have proven crucial, was not adopted (European Commission, 2012a).
9 The statistical backbone of the new European economic governance ...
sign of the low “capacity of the economy to adjust” (European Commission, 2011). A high
unemployment rate thus calls for more flexible labour markets, in line with the European
Employment Strategy that was launched in 1997 (Raveaud, 2007).
As far as the indicator is concerned, the threshold is set slightly above the EU average
(9,1% in 2015, 10,5% in the Eurozone). It is broken by fifteen countries, with record levels
being reached by Greece (24.7%), Spain (21%), Croatia (16.5%) and Portugal (12.2%).
However, setting the upper bound for unemployment at 10% already shows that high levels of
unemployment have been accepted as a normal feature of European economies. Also, it is
surprising that the Commission did not include in its list of indicators the employment rate,
which has been the main economic indicator since the Lisbon treaty (2000) (Salais, 2006).
Thus the indicators included in the Scoreboard tend to emphasise a country’s external
position, with high wages and rigid labour markets being seen as problems. This points to the
specific model from which these indicators are derived.
3. The disequilibria of the Scoreboard
3.1. The Commission’s deflationary model
When presenting “the economic interpretation of the Scoreboard”, the Commission
insisted on the “critical importance” of “country-specific circumstances and institutions”
(European Commission, 2012b). It added that “broader indicators of development” should
also be considered, such as those relating to productivity.
However, this is not the case. The core of the Commission’s model is based on wage
cuts that should enhance competitiveness and exports. It is consistent with the “Berlin
Washington consensus”, which denies any effectiveness to Keynesian economic policies and
rejects lagging demand as a possible explanation for crises (Fitoussi, Saraceno, 2012).
In this approach, wages are to be maintained as low as possible and public deficits
should shrink; only exports remain as a dynamic element of demand. Clearly, this is an
export-led model of growth, which is advocated here, based on the German example.
However, not all European economies are as competitive or even export-oriented as Germany,
and it is by definition not possible for all countries to be export champions simultaneously.
Thus, by insisting on low wages, a massive disequilibrium is maintained within the EU
between the supply of goods and the income of the population. It is therefore no surprise that
GDP growth remains low.
Two other imbalances, which may have been at the origin of the crisis, are also left
3.2. Two persistent imbalances: excess profits and inequalities
These two disequilibria can be inferred from two imbalances. The first is that between
the labour share of income and the capital share, which has been acknowledged by the
European Commission for a few years now (2007). In fact, since the mid-1980s, the wage
share (the part of value added that goes to workers in the form of wages and social security
contributions) has been lower than it was in the 1960s, while the share of profits – and hence
of dividends – has soared. It is remarkable that this increase in the share of profits has not led
to the expected rise in private investment and private employment.
The second disequilibrium concerns inequalities among individuals themselves: as the
number of working poor rises while compensation soars at the top, inequalities widen, which
pushes the poorest households into debt. As debt piles up to sustain consumption in the
bottom part of the income distribution, profits are accumulated in the finance industry
providing the corresponding credits. This leads to an even more unequal distribution of
income, as the profits of the finance industry accrue to those already at the top. Moreover, this
process is not sustainable, as debts rise faster than incomes. A massive disequilibrium is thus
nurtured at the heart of the economy, which can only end in a crisis of the kind we
experienced in 2007 (Kumhof and Rancière, 2010). More generally, the high level of
inequalities makes the US and European economies both unfair and inefficient (Piketty, 2014,
Thus we have two indicators of disequilibrium: the wage share, and a measure of
inequality. However, neither of them is included in the Scoreboard. This is to be understood
by the broader lack of interest of the EU macroeconomic governance for social matters.
3.3. Oversight of the social dimension
The insistence on public debt is one of the futilities of the Commission’s approach.
While it is certainly necessary to curtail debt in some countries, making reduction a universal
prerequisite completely ignores Keynesian mechanisms, which can result in a deepening of
recession and persistent deficits, as Paul Krugman kept on repeating on his blog (Inman,
2013). Besides, crucial policy measures have been adopted on grounds, which systematically
under estimated the negative impact of budget cuts on activity, as IMF economists have
recognised (Blanchard, Leigh, 2013). Also, straightforward errors have been made by
economists who saw high debts level as necessary obstacles to growth, as the debunking of
the works of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart by Thomas Herndon, the graduate student
from the heterodox University of Amherts (Massachusetts) has demonstrated (Herndon et al.,
2013). Lastly, the loss of economic activity causes excessive unemployment and
bankruptcies, which are detrimental to potential growth and long-term prosperity.
Finally, the Commission turns a blind eye to the counterpart of these reductions. As
social spending is not on the list (an even if it were, it is doubtful whether a high value would
be seen as a success), it is all too easy to forget the essential role of public money in
defending the weakest and preserving the social fabric. This is a generic problem with the
Commission’s approach, which does not consider social issues as potential economic
imbalances: the issue of rising poverty, notably the ever higher number of working poor, is
ignored, as if it were not a sign of an imbalance in the economy (Eurofound, 2010). This is
what allows the EU to present Germany as a model, despite the fact that the evolution of
inequalities in this country since the implementation of the Hartz reforms in 2000 has been
nothing short of catastrophic (Inequality Watch, 2012; Kyzyma, 2013).
It would be preferable for the Commission to pay attention to the indicators that really
matter, such as employment, poverty, inequality and measures of social health. It is also
9 The statistical backbone of the new European economic governance ...
highly problematic that not a single measure of “environmental imbalance” has been included
in the list.
Conclusion. Misgoverning by numbers
As Alain Desrosières (2010) brilliantly argued, statistics are no simple “measures of
reality”. By choosing what to measure and how to measure it, policy-makers make crucial
choices. More precisely, “the tools of statistics evolve in parallel with new forms of the state”.
Desrosières (2003) calls “the neoliberal state” a state where indicators and benchmarks are
used to motivate individuals to adopt a certain behaviour. This certainly applies to this
Scoreboard, where statistics have been placed at the heart of political governance.
As we have seen, the Scoreboard can be criticised on many grounds. First, it omits
crucial economic variables, such as GDP or employment. Second, it places undue emphasis
on competitiveness, understood in a narrow way, thus putting wages and public spending
under strain. Last, it ignores major sources of imbalances, namely the high level of the profit
share and ever expanding inequalities. Thus the Scoreboard imposes a certain interpretation of
the crisis, despite the fact that, in so doing, it holds out little prospect of improvement in terms
of employment or the well-being of the peoples of Europe, contrary to what many voices are
asking for (Stiglitz et al., 2014).
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Regulation (EU) N° 1176/2011 of the European Parliament and the Council of 16 November
2011 on the prevention and correction of macroeconomic imbalances.