A Month In Spain That Didn’t Shake The World

Journalists are undoubtedly  having hard time following official economic policy in Spain at the moment. The core of the problem they face is that we have a hydra headed government which speaks with many tongues. In some ways the lack of coordination can be put down to simple newness and inexperience, although it should be noted that all the principal actors were in action the last time the PP was in office, as part of  the Aznar government. Continue reading

Monti, The Full Version

The version in question is an interview with the Financial Times. A summary was available here, but now they have gone live with the whole interview. If you can raise it on Google or something then it is well worth a read. For one thing it will offer you a trip down memory lane. Anyone remember this?

“If you’ve got a bazooka, and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out.” Continue reading

The Massendowngrade Effect

Well, that was the week that was, wasn’t it? It started with a cheerful, upbeat market response to both the impact of the ECB’s 3 year LTRO and the growing impression that Hungary was going to make some sort of “one-off” deal with the IMF, and ended near the depths of despair as S&P’s announced the downgrade of 9 Euro Area countries, while the EU Commission worked hard to reinforce the impression that it was about to launch legal proceedings that could even lead to the temporary suspension of Hungary from the EU. It was a time of bitter sweet experiences, which started with Tamás Fellegi (that’s him smiling in the photo below) heading off for his scheduled interview with Christine Lagarde. Then we learnt that the German economy had grown by a brisk 3% in 2011, only to have our hopes dashed by the clarification that most of the growth was in the first 9 months of the year, and in fact the country probably entered recession in the last quarter. Continue reading

Playing Chicken And Rooster With Hungary

Tension surrounding the application of a series of so-called “unorthodox policies” by Hungary’s Fidesz government has certainly been rising in recent days. While Washington has been reasonably quiet as govenment emissary Tamas Fellegi meets with top IMF officials, Brussels has seen a veritable avalance of official statements and policy initiatives. Despite constant rumours that an agreement with the IMF is near, I find it pretty implausible that any deal can be reached without some kind of EU assent.  At the present time this assent is unlikely to be forthcoming, and indeed the ”ante” has been pushed up and up. The latest example here is the fact that Brussels has given the Hungarian administration till next Tuesday to do something about altering the country’s new constitution or face the prospect of legal action, and possible suspension from the EU under article 7 of the EU Treaty. Budapest on the other hand has been full of conciliating words, but the key point is we have yet to see anything meaningful in terms of action. Continue reading

How to Spend It, and the economics of the useless

Swinging off this post at Unlearning Economics, I was motivated to write a long comment that really ought to be blogged.

The industrial economics of extreme wealth is an interesting subject. It’s often been observed that a lot of the spending of the rich goes into positional goods. A positional good is, in a sense, in fixed supply, or rather, position itself is in fixed supply. If more of a positional good is produced, its positional value decreases. More spending on them can only inflate their prices.

The quintessential positional good is land. A lot of land is useful in itself, but it is true everywhere that owning x amount of land gives you more positional utility than an equivalent position in cash or securities, and the most sought-after land by area isn’t farmland or building plots near a container terminal or an oil well, it’s billionaires’ row, whose value is entirely positional. Land is the classic case of economic rent, and that’s what I’m driving at.

Just as rent doesn’t reflect costs of production, but only a monopoly position, the price of positional goods reflects only their positional nature and the income of those competing for them. Let’s now switch to the economics of the firm; if the price of X is dominated by economic rent, an increase in the price is mostly an increase in profit. If profits rise in some sector, capital should be preferentially allocated to it.

Clearly, you can’t manufacture Hampstead or Palo Alto or the Prinzregentenstrasse, or only with great difficulty and the risk of destroying its positional quality. You can easily manufacture more iPhones, which therefore are gradually becoming less positional. You can manufacture Vertu phones by sticking diamonds on mid-2000s down-ticket Nokias, essentially creating purely positional items. Joseph Schumpeter would of course point out that it is the aim of all enterpreneurship to be able to claim the economic rents of monopoly.

In order for capital to be reallocated to the positional sector, then, it’s necessary to invent new forms of positional competition, and ideally, ones which escape from the temptation to just be a good product that can be produced on a big scale like iPhones or VW Golfs or my trainers. And indeed, we see a sizeable economy devoted to just that. One way of achieving this is to dematerialise the product – Cory Doctorow once remarked that if they can’t define your job they can’t outsource it, and the greater the immaterial content, the more of it is concentrated in the mind of its creator and the place and time of its consumption. Therefore, it is harder to replicate. In that sense, it’s a form of economic growth that is light on resources, but it seems intuitively difficult to defend activity that is pointless, other-regarding, private, and directed to snobbery.

Another way is to increase the service content of the product. We noted that land confers more status than most goods. But servants are almost as good or better, and would you bet against slaves being better still? This is very interesting indeed, as it may well represent a deliberate reduction of productivity and therefore a net loss to society. Where wealth is used to display power over others, by deliberately wasting labour, perhaps we’re seeing something like the costly-signalling logic of the peacock’s tail, or a form of bourgeois potlatch.

I didn’t expect to end up at this conclusion, but then that sort of dépaysement what a good blog is for.

There are of course other options. In so far as positional spending is directed at public beauty, it is perhaps worth having – having your name prominently displayed as a benefactor of the Royal Academy, much as I find the place annoying and reactionary, is better than spending your money like Dennis Kozlowski on that giant ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, pissing vodka into your guests’ glasses. (Although to be honest, if anyone’s up for reconstructing the thing as an installation somewhere public, even I’d contribute to your Kozlowski Memorial Fund. Yes, I know he’s not dead yet.) And some bits of the positional industry have complex business models that rely on everyone else as much as they do on the super-rich – fashion couldn’t support its baroque R&D-and-advertising-and-French-heritage-project top end without the high-street and wouldn’t have any ideas without the low-street.

But then, if there’s a good reason to unlearn economics in the first place it’s to respect institutions and complexity and the notion that people’s motives ought to be taken seriously, not only when they are convenient.

From Here To Eternity, Hungarian Style

Hungary’s unofficial ambassador to the IMF,Tamás Fellegi, is reportedly facing a “terrible atmosphere” after his arrival in Washington on an exploratory mission whose objective is to open up communication about a new financial lifeline for the country. Frankly, given the recent record of relations between the two institions involved it isn’t hard to understand why. Leaving aside the long list of recent grievances, it was Hungary who decided to walk away from the IMF in the first place, suggesting it could manage quite well on its own, thank you very much, so the Washington based lender is now hardly likely to welcome the country back as some sort of long lost prodigal son. Continue reading

The Rain In Spain Falls Mainly On The Journalists, It Seems

Things in Spain are never exactly what they seem to be. This is a painful lesson that even Angela Merkel must have learnt in recent days, especially since she put her credibility so much on the line in backing the country’s deficit reduction efforts. “Spain has really done its homework and I think it is on the right track,” is the message she has been trying to sell to the world.

Naturally then she will not have been amused to learn last Friday that rather than the 6% promised under the Spanish stability programme, the country’s deficit in 2011 is going to be something like 8%. Some sort of overshoot was long being anticipated, but such an overshoot? Naturally it isn’t (quite) Greek proportions, but it is still hardly evidence for a credible and praiseworthy effort. This is the thing about Spain, it obviously isn’t Greece, but still all isn’t quite what it should be. Add to this deficit result the fact that the Bank of Spain is reported to be frantically pressuring banks into revising the valuation of their property asssets following the publication by ratings agency Fitch of a report which claims they are currently on average 43% overvalued. And, of course, any major downward revaluation of the repossesed assets will give an entirely new reading for the balance sheets of many of the institutions involved (the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo went from having a 50 million euro profit at the end of 2010 to 1.7 billion euros in losses in June 2011 following the application of just such a mark-to-market procedure – and the savings bank was finally sold to Banc Sabadell for the princely sum of one euro). Put two and two together here, and it is clear that the country’s bond spread may once more be in for a bumpy ride when investors finally recover from their yuletide hangovers. Continue reading