About Alex Harrowell

Alex Harrowell is a 33-year old research analyst for a start-up telecoms consulting firm. He's from Yorkshire, now an economic migrant in London. His specialist subjects are military history, Germany, the telecommunications industry, and networks of all kinds. He would like to point out that it's nothing personal. Writes the Yorkshire Ranter.

Three economic history papers you should totally read

The Berkeley Economic History Lab is blogging a lot of its recent working papers, and they’re a goldmine of great stuff. Here’s Richard Sutch writing in October this year, whose The Liquidity Trap, the Great Depression, and Unconventional Policy: Reading Keynes at the Zero Lower Bound basically recovers an important idea from the General Theory and Keynes’ practice during the Depression.

Sutch’s gloss of Keynes is that an important way in which the zero lower bound constraint bites is that there is always a term-structure of interest rates, rather than anything like a single economywide rate of interest. As a result, even if short rates hit the ZLB or even go negative, a large segment of the yield spectrum will still be significantly positive. This of course has some consequences for the debate about when Keynes broke with the Wicksellian idea of a single market interest rate that might deviate from a full-employment natural rate.

He argues that Keynes micro-founded this on differences between the risk profiles of borrowers and lenders. Borrowers and lenders both face the risk that whatever enterprise is being financed will fail and the loan won’t be paid off. Borrowers stand to lose whatever security is put down for the loan, while lenders stand to lose the difference between the security and the principal (i.e. their risk is fundamentally about estimating how much security is enough). In theory, arbitrage should transmit lower rates at the short end along the whole curve, because if you can borrow for a year and roll it over cheaper than you can borrow for 5 years, you will.

But here’s the problem; lenders bring their own idiosyncratic risk to the table. Each event of refinancing brings with it the risk that potential lenders have become illiquid, a so-called sudden stop. This always exists unless the life of the loan matches the life of the asset exactly, and it is an attribute of lenders, not borrowers. Therefore, long-term credit comes at a premium, and in a sense what is “long” is defined in relation to the typical life of capital investments.

Therefore, it’s quite possible for the policy rate to hit zero or even theoretically drive through the ZLB, while a large proportion of the universe of credit still has significantly positive real interest rates. This implies that unconventional policy of some sort – perhaps a combination of QE and an “Operation Twist”-like effort to target long rates, or direct fiscal reflation – would be needed and that’s what the man concluded.

An example of the sudden stop would be another of their papers, Olivier Accominotti and Barry Eichengreen’s The Mother of All Sudden Stops: Capital Flows and Reversals in Europe, 1919-1932. In this one, Accominotti and Eichengreen have literally discovered a trove of historical documents in an archive. It’s a catalogue of major capital-raising exercises in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, covering the major financial centres and most of the second tier as well. The conclusion is that the rolling financial crisis starting with Creditanstalt in 1931, defined as a sudden stop of international lending followed by capital flight, was driven by volatility in the stock market – it was, in fact, the Great Crash and its lesser crashes that did it. The correlation with volatility in world equities was much higher than with any economic variable in the countries affected.

An example of policy would be Eric Monnet’s Financing a Planned Economy: Institutions and Credit Allocation in the French Golden Age of Growth (1954-1974). This one comes from Paris School of Economics – surely the fac Piketty these days – and you can tell because it’s crunchy with empiricism. Monnet has constructed a database of lending registered with the Banque de France that provides series into very detailed industrial sectors, and another one of firms’ operating results based on tax returns, going through what sounds like epic pain to match the excisemen’s classification up with the central bankers’ and further with the national statistics. The key result is that the change in the state-directed, or as he would put it, state-influenced lending was very strongly correlated with internal rates of return, implying that the system worked well as an allocator of capital.

He’s also done a lot of qualitative work to understand how the French financial sector worked at the time. It was a lot more complicated and subtle than the caricature of being directed by the government, and it evolved over time. To begin with, a lot of lending really was directed by government and issued by the finance ministry, mostly to large capital projects in infrastructure and heavy industry. With time, the heavy lifting moved to a new layer of specialist lenders who faced projects in manufacturing, housing, and tourism. Influence rather than control was very much the point. The key financial product was long-term lending of 5 years plus.

There’s much more stuff in there – the fall of the USSR in a trade perspective, equities and anti-Semitism, Ottoman and Austrian administration and their long-term effects on growth.

Euro-nationalism is still a terrible idea.

This piece about Catalan #indyref crystallises everything I hate about what I call Euro-nationalism. It’s wonderful that they’re all so engaged:

Kilted men wearing saltire capes and foam fingers on both hands danced in the aisles as “The Red Hot Chilli Pipers” played a bagpipe version of Don’t Stop Believing.

Sorry. That was the other lot. Let’s try that again.

Clara, 20, a university student, is one of nearly fifty thousand volunteers who made Sunday’s vote on Catalan independence possible. I meet her sitting behind a ballot box in a school-turned-polling station in Barcelona, a big smile on her face…

But what is it they actually want to do with independence? Well, stop paying into the Spanish government’s finances. What this means is nicely demonstrated by the following map from here. Blue regions’ per capita GDP is at 90% or more of the EU average. Yellow ones are between 90% and 75%. Red ones are 75% or lower.

European_regional_policy_2014.svg

So what we’re really saying here is “Stop paying social insurance for people in places like Extremadura, some of the poorest people in Europe. Punkt, ende.” That fundamentally selfish and meanspirited impulse is what unites Clara, the SNP, and UKIP; the Euronationalists have spoken and they said “Want! Me! Me! Me!”

Wolf Biermann trolls the Bundestag

So the German parliament invited legendary songwriter, dissident, and wonderful professional malcontent Wolf Biermann to the session celebrating 25 years since the revolution. That went as badly as you might expect, or perhaps as well.

Where do we start here? Obviously there’s the bit where he calls the Left Party MPs the “wretched remnants of everything we so fortunately overcame”. There’s the speaker of parliament, the CDU’s Norbert Lammert, a man who looks and talks exactly like a conservative called Norbert, who calls him to order on the grounds that he was invited to sing, dammit, and if he wants to speak he can always get elected. Biermann remarks that the DDR didn’t manage to shut him up and Lammert won’t.

While this goes on, the breaking news caption informs us that the association of the post-1945 expellees is electing a new president. Geschichtsträchtig.

There’s the performance itself, as if the rest wasn’t part of the performance. And then there’s the bit where Lammert tries to make up for it by congratulating Biermann on his silver wedding, and Biermann breaks off from chatting (does he chat? I rather think not) with, or at least to, Sigmar Gabriel to remind him that it’s also the anniversary of the great, socialist October Revolution, as he puts it.

Even if Lammert’s intervention might not have been wholly serious, it’s a masterpiece of awkwardness. As well as a guitarist of note, a brilliant lyricist, and an unmistakable voice, Biermann is one hell of a troll.

You still don’t have to have Juncker.

Stefan Kornelius in the Süddeutsche Zeitung says that it’s a myth that the EU has always managed to bring off major reforms, once it really came under pressure. Instead, whenever it came under pressure, it managed to do something dramatic – but it was usually wrong.

Es gehört zu den Mythen europäischer Politik, dass die Gemeinschaft immer dann zu großen Reformen in der Lage war, wenn sie unter enormem Druck stand. Dieser Mythos wurde zumindest in den vergangenen Jahren gründlich widerlegt. Richtig ist indes, dass es die Gemeinschaft immer wieder schaffte, an den großen Wegmarken ihrer Geschichte die falsche Richtung einzuschlagen…

Kornelius makes the excellent point that any fool can announce they want “more Europe”, and most of them have done. But, as he says, the longer this goes on, the more people vote against it. The great unasked question is what “more Europe” would do. This has been true for years, indeed decades. What would its leaders do with the new powers granted them? Isn’t the content of politics interesting, especially to the citizens who are likely to be its targets?

Instead of any meaningful discussion about what this Europe is going to do, though, we get an intense fight over nominations. The emotional energy of politics is assigned to the struggle between the institutions and the competition between individuals. This leaves nothing for the struggle between ideas or the competition between interests as expressed by the popular vote. But it’s always the way – at the crude level, any dispute in the EU is reduced to virtuous Franco-Germans versus bad Europeans/Eurosceptics, while at a finer level of resolution, any dispute is expressed as a conflict among the institutions.

In fact, it is a necessary condition of the fight between the institutions that it must change nothing in terms of policy. And, in the end, perhaps it will also change nothing in terms of personnel. We seem bound to get austerity and Juncker, even if the Bild Zeitung has noticed his Blair-like speaker’s earnings. We are offered the choice between getting them by virtue of the Council or by virtue of the Parliament. This is, I think, insufficient.

You voted for it, in short.

So this is a thing. It must be – it’s in the New York Times Magazine and the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the same weekend.

Dean Baker is rough on It’s Official: the Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave. To be fair, the NYT article actually does make the point that flat-to-falling wages, the invention of student debt, and crazy-high house prices have been pushing back the age of economic independence. It’s not just some sort of moral degeneracy that makes them live at home.

And it makes the important point that this has been going on for some time. We’re not living through the hangover after the party; for the majority, there was no party, as recovering Lib Dem economic advisor Giles Wilkes points out.

Of course, Baker could point at tens to hundreds of articles of pure whining and moralising about why today’s kids just won’t get on their bikes. He would be right, too. Very importantly, he could point to many of them that long predated the crash. I certainly remember this as a subject of intensely tiresome and self satisfied public whining for my parents’ generation, and as a subject of real trouble for my contemporaries. Hey, Euromoney Institutional Investor offered me a job on £14k in central London in 2005. And Baker has the great advantage that he names the guilty men.

But there is no real dispute between Baker and the NYT writer, I think. Contrast this effort from the SZ, in which we are told that this is a phenomenon well known and laughed at in Italy (!), and that it has gone up in Europe since 2007. Well, gee, how could it happen? Perhaps the policies that led to this have something in common with the casual contempt the crack at Italians betrays.

Further, this is special:

Manchen Kindern sind Zusatzkosten, die sie verursachen, nicht bewusst – und das in einer Phase, in der Eltern für ihre Altersvorsorge arbeiten.

Ah, the problem is that if the economic order you voted for means your kids move back in with you, that might cost you money you’re putting into your HSH Nordbank ship-rental fund because of the pension reform you voted for them to have and the tax cut you voted for you to have. Clearly the debate, even at this level, is a notch more honest in the US than in Germany.

World Cup thread

EU news is as depressing as it could possibly be. Let’s watch football.

I always regret the World Cup group stage once it’s over. It’s the bit that actually expresses the whole “worldwide festival of football” element, before the knockout phase starts to home in on the ever narrower pinnacle of a mountain of failure.

This year I managed to watch all the England games, Spain-Netherlands, Germany-Portugal, Uruguay-Costa Rica, Brazil-Mexico, France-Honduras, France-Switzerland, Germany-Ghana, Colombia-Greece, and I apparently fell asleep watching Australia-Chile. So I guess I worked on that.

What stuck out? Goals. Lots of goals. Direct play is back. So is just a bit of the rough stuff. It’s not as if it hasn’t been technical, though. England were totally weird. And have there been upsets. It’s probably been more fun so far than any World Cup I remember, with the possible rival of 1998 when people claimed I looked like my exact contemporary Michael Owen. But let’s stick to the footy.

This piece is really meant to be just here to open a World Cup thread, so I’ll stop.

Really.

So, the “mini-summit” of Socialist heads of state or government has happened, and it says….Juncker! Their conditions for this are apparently:

  • more time for “reforms”
  • this time is conditional on “reforms”
  • no change to the Stability Pact

Parturiunt montes, nascitur riduculus mus. The Eurozone No Turning Back group. Everyone’s a member. Stephan-Andreas Casdorff makes some excellent points, notably that Germany’s SPD was only able to implement its now-famous Agenda 2010 because it burst the stability pact criteria to finance it, that the German conservatives, far from publicising Juncker, named David McAllister “national spitzenkandidat”, and that the main aim of the nine Socialists seems to be imposing Juncker on Merkel because it’s a win of sorts.

And the latest speculation on personnel politics? Hopelessly failed French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for Council President, and Emma Bonino – famous for fake-fainting when anyone suggested less subsidy for Italian fishermen – as foreign minister. Catherine Ashton is probably the only EU official at the moment who can claim to have achieved anything, but clearly she must go to make room for this trawl of the discredited and the mediocre.

Don’t let them do it to you: Juncker edition

One of the things that annoyed me about the rush to Juncker, as it were, can be summed up by this chart from the European Parliament in the UK.

It’s still clear that the EPP is the biggest party, but it’s very far from a majority, and even if you accept the decision by Hannes Swoboda to support Juncker unconditionally…well, look at all the Europeans who were misguided enough to vote for something other than the two Respectable Parties. There are a lot. Personally, I score the Greens/EFA as a generally pro-Eurosystem (in every sense) group – I remember Joschka Fischer even if they don’t want to any more. Also, I score the ECR as such, but I’m less sure about that.

But even leaving them out, I get 151 MEPs who are specifically elected, whether from the right or the left or somewhere else, to oppose things carrying on as before. They are the third biggest party. They represent millions of Europeans. They are the 25% or so who have withdrawn consent from the European project. Does anyone really seriously imagine that the elections of 2014 transmit the message “That was great; let’s have some more of it”?

Further, the coalition possibilities are hugely diverse. The numbers work for several options, and the possibility of ECR refusing to play increases them. But the election-night interpretation of Spitzenkandidaten was specifically intended to silence this diversity of voices by taking the S&D MEPs out of the game. It is probably fair to say that nobody who voted for a party of the Left was hoping to get a conservative apostle of austerity and defender of tax havens, so the democratic status of this manoeuvre is deeply questionable.

After all, on the night, the group leaders like Swoboda specifically no longer represented the newly elected Parliament. We are still, per the chart, talking in terms of “projections” weeks later. The make-up of the new groups is up in the air, they need to elect their leaders, so by what right did the outgoing S&D leader throw the votes of European social democracy down the chute? Rayman kojast, as they used to say in Iran.

And as Daniel Gros points out, the S&D parties narrowly won the European popular vote.

What we want here is the freies Spiel der Kräfte, as the Germans say at these moments, the free play of forces. If the S&D and some combination of the Greens, the radical Left, and the Liberals could put together a majority, why not? Let them try. It will do us all the world of good. But the problem is that precisely this is what all sorts of people have been trying to prevent. Schulz mustn’t form a coalition, and must be stopped from even being Juncker’s deputy, so Germany gets to replace Olli Rehn.

The degree to which the EU institutions function as a way of restraining, filtering, and preventing democracy has rarely been so clear. The original idea of having Spitzenkandidaten itself is being blamed by German government briefers on Schulz, as a socialist plot to weaken Merkel. If the Parliament wants to add to its power as against the Commission or the Council, it can try, but under one unspoken condition: that nothing changes beyond that. It’s The Leopard in reverse: everything can change, so long as everything goes on as before.

It’s always the same – criticism is batted away as being “Eurosceptic” and hence probably fascist, and blamed on the British, who are uniquely evil. (Even when Angela Merkel threatens to veto Juncker.) It’s always the same old gang, too. You know who I mean. Can’t we have a language in which criticism is acceptable?

Fortunately, someone made a fuss. As a result, Van Rompuy is now off carrying out soundings with all involved. Interestingly, his role as President of the Council is suddenly rather like a head of state’s during a coalition crisis. However, the lesson in this post is that there was no option on the ballot that wouldn’t have given us Juncker. It used to be the Eurosceptics who had the No Turning Back group; now it’s the EU, and we’re all in it.

Olli Rehn: a tribute

Olli Rehn’s last ECOFIN press conference has just finished. AFOE would like to take this momentous occasion as an opportunity to salute Rehn’s towering achievements, and Matthew Yglesias passes on exactly what we need.

Screen_Shot_2014-06-13_at_11.50.26_AM

Yes, we know he was Enlargement Commissioner. But seriously folks, Rehn took office as Commissioner for EMU on the 9th of February 2010. If you were to overlay those two charts, the lines would diverge essentially right then.

And, desperately, he thinks he’s done a brilliant job:

It’s only topped by the astonishing fact that some Iraq War advocates not only continue to claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but claim that the weapons are still present to this day.