No more spending excuses for Merkel as investment bottlenecks ease

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures at her arrival for the government’s ‘Open Door Day’ in Berlin on Sunday Sam sit fuga. Et laut ute odi cum as elit. (Reuters)
Updated 19 August 2019

No more spending excuses for Merkel as investment bottlenecks ease

  • German leader urged to boost public investment by taking on new debt Sunducim velessunt alis plabore sernatur

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has fended off growing calls for more fiscal stimulus by citing the slow outflow of existing federal funds — but data suggests the money is indeed being used up as local authority bottlenecks gradually clear. With Europe’s largest economy on the brink of recession and borrowing costs at record lows, Merkel has faced pressure at home and from abroad to ditch her pledge to target balanced budgets and instead boost public investment by taking on new debt.
Merkel and her conservatives say Berlin has already earmarked billions of euros in investment for schools, nurseries and hospitals but that local authorities have spent only a fraction of this windfall.
But this excuse seems no longer valid: Figures from the Finance Ministry show that towns and municipalities are now tapping the federal government’s funds more actively, suggesting that planning and labor bottlenecks are easing.
Of €3.5 billion ($3.9 billion) earmarked in a municipal infrastructure fund for investment in schools, nurseries and hospitals (KInvFG I), local authorities have applied for nearly €3.4 billion, the data showed — roughly 96 percent of the overall amount on offer.
The fund was created in 2015 and initially meant to last until 2018. Due to the slow initial take-up, it was then extended to 2020.
Of another €3.5 billion put aside by the government in 2017 for school renovations (KInvFG II), authorities so far have tapped €2.4 billion, or 69 percent.

HIGHLIGHTS

• German towns tap into federal funds more actively.

• Improved outflow raises pressure to provide more money.

• Coalition parties at odds over debt-financed stimulus.

“As you can see, the program is running very well,” a Finance Ministry spokeswoman said, adding that the take-up had jumped by nearly €2 billion over the past 12 months.
“The figures show that there is planning progress in most federal states and that financially weak municipalities welcome the financial aid from the federal government,” she added.
The improved flow of funds is important for Germany, where heavily indebted towns and municipalities historically manage a large chunk of public spending and many citizens are annoyed by run-down local infrastructure and closed public facilities.

Austerity
Years of austerity linked to the national debt brake — a constitutional amendment introduced in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008/09 to rein in public debt — have led to pent-up public investment needs in towns and municipalities worth a combined €138 billion, data from KfW Research shows.
“Towns and municipalities have been structurally underfunded for more than 20 years. They were forced to cut staff,” Gerd Landsberg, managing director of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, told Reuters.
“That partly explains the initial problems with the slow take-up of federal funds — it takes time to hire new staff and get the ball rolling,” Landsberg explained.
The latest figures show, however, that authorities are overcoming those staff-related planning bottlenecks, meaning most of the money should be used up soon, he said.
Landsberg called on the government to provide more funding lines and improve the design of its programs.
“Short-term investment funds alone do not provide sufficient planning and personnel security. We must secure the financial strength of towns and municipalities in the long term.”
Like Merkel and her conservatives, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz of the jointly governing, center-left Social Democrats (SPD) has shown little appetite so far to ditch the balanced budget goal and boost investments through new debt.
Eckhardt Rehberg, the chief budget lawmaker in Merkel’s conservatives, is also sticking to the line that billions of euros still sit unused in various special-purpose funds.
“The debate about debt-financed investment programs misses the point. The problem is not a lack of money, but the sluggish outflow of funds,” Rehberg said.
Authorities must hire more staff, cut red tape and speed up planning and approval procedures, he said. “In addition, the construction sector has already reached its capacity limit, which means it can hardly cope with more demand,” Rehberg added.
Nevertheless, members of both the SPD’s own left wing and of the Greens, an increasingly strong opposition party, are pushing for a fiscal U-turn. Even the influential BDI industry lobby group, traditionally close to Merkel’s conservatives, last week called for a debt-financed fiscal stimulus package.
Cansel Kiziltepe, a lower house SPD lawmaker specializing in finance, said Merkel and the conservatives should stop blaming local authorities and rethink their insistence on incurring no new debt in their budgets, a policy goal commonly known as the “black zero.”
“Especially in times of economic weakness and in light of improved outflow of funds, it’s high time to say goodbye to the fetish of the black zero,” Kiziltepe told Reuters.


France ready to take Trump’s tariff threat to WTO

Updated 08 December 2019

France ready to take Trump’s tariff threat to WTO

  • Macron government will discuss a global digital tax with Washington at the OECD, says finance minister

PARIS: France is ready to go to the World Trade Organization to challenge US President Donald Trump’s threat to put tariffs on French goods in a row over a French tax on internet companies, its finance minister said on Sunday.

“We are ready to take this to an international court, notably the WTO, because the national tax on digital companies touches US companies in the same way as EU or French companies or Chinese. It is not discriminatory,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France 3 television. Paris has long complained about US digital companies not paying enough tax on revenues earned in France.

In July, the French government decided to apply a 3 percent levy on revenue from digital services earned in France by firms with more than €25 million in French revenue and €750 million ($845 million) worldwide. It is due to kick in retroactively from the start of 2019.

Washington is threatening to retaliate with heavy duties on imports of French cheeses and luxury handbags, but France and the EU say they are ready to retaliate in turn if Trump carries out the threat. Le Maire said France was willing to discuss a global digital tax with the US at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but that such a tax could not be optional for internet companies.

“If there is agreement at the OECD, all the better, then we will finally have a global digital tax. If there is no agreement at OECD level, we will restart talks at EU level,” Le Maire said.

He added that new EU Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni had already proposed to restart such talks.

France pushed ahead with its digital tax after EU member states, under the previous executive European Commission, failed to agree on a levy valid across the bloc after opposition from Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

The new European Commission assumed office on Dec. 1.