Social Europe Journal has just published its latest Research Essay “Public Capital in the 21st Century” by Giacomo Corneo. The main argument of the paper is that the state should become a kind of investment state in order to make sure that high returns on capital do not further increase inequality but benefit the wider public. To achieve this, Corneo argues that governments should set up sovereign wealth funds to manage their investments and take advantage of low interest rates on sovereign bonds as investments should be debt-financed.
Having read the paper I was wondering whether this would also be an option to create the much-touted fiscal capacity for the Eurozone. Such a mechanism wouldn’t need Eurozone taxes or tax harmonisation (although both would be desirable) and does not require an open-ended commitment to joint debt. Here is how it could work: Let’s assume a Eurozone debt instrument backed by all governments can borrow for 1.5% in financial markets. For the sake of it let’s assume an annual return of 6% on a globally diversified portfolio, which is a realistic scenario. 25% of the return would be required to service the debt and Corneo argues that the rest should be used to pay back the principal so the debt incurred will be repaid in 15 years or so. I would argue that the remaining 75% of the return should be split between repaying the principal and increasing the size of the fund. So an alternative split of the return could look like this: 50% repayment of debt, 25% debt service, 25% increasing the size of the fund.
The key points are that the initial debt will be fully repaid after a defined period of time (so there is no open-ended commitment to joint debt) and that such a sovereign wealth fund could create a significant amount of revenue that could be the income source for a Eurozone budget. The budget would be administered by a Eurozone group in the European Parliament and could be used to help stabilise the currency area. Apart from the need to complement this pro-cyclical instrument with counter-cyclical measures (issuing debt for current spending rather than investment that would also be repaid with priority?) that should kick in if there is a general crisis, I cannot see a reason for why this wouldn’t work, especially given that a budget of about 2% of GDP is regarded as big enough to effectively counterbalance asymmetric shocks.