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.

Pofalla

Remember Roland Pofalla? Sure ya do. The minister in charge of Angela Merkel’s private office, and therefore Germany’s intelligence services, who vehemently denied anyone had been spied upon when the Snowden leaks hit. Pofalla denied everything, on the basis that the Americans had told him so. When it became clear from the documents that huge amounts of mobile network data were available in XKEYSCORE from a German source, he said it came from the German army’s field ELINT team in Afghanistan.

At every turn he denied everything, and it may have been him who invented the talking point that European intelligence services picked things out like a harpoon, rather than scooping everything up like a trawler, like the horrible Americans. This would later be used repeatedly to justify French surveillance legislation and was presumably coordinated with them. Of course, you can’t “pick out” items of signals intelligence without first scooping them up and examining them to see if they’re the ones you want to “pick out”.

Now it turns out they were listening to Pofalla’s mobile phone, on the number he still uses today.

Europe muddles through: Mediterranean edition

This Politico piece of mine argues that Europe has talked itself around to sharing the effort to rescue shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean, having floated a variety of draconian threats to justify getting warships down there and then quietly backed out of them.

I hang this story on the voyage of HMS Bulwark, which started off by sitting the crisis out in Turkey, was then offered by the British to take part in some ill-defined military option, and ended up being congratulated by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and, dear God, the Daily Mail for its role in the search-and-rescue operation.

Bulwark‘s deployment is up in a few days, and the government has promised to relieve her – however, the relief is HMS Enterprise, a specialised hydrographic survey vessel of all things, lacking Bulwark‘s flock of landing craft, vast flight deck, field hospital, or headquarters facilities. The answer is that the Italians have taken over the command, with the carrier Cavour offering many of the same capabilities (less from landing craft, more from aviation).

Operation Mare Nostrum from last year has, indeed, been internationalised, and this is a major policy change. But what a manipulative and twisted way we took to get there! The lessons for other major European issues, I trust, are obvious.

Very, very foolish words.

This FAZ story, suggesting that Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble are not on the best of terms over negotiations with Greece and that Wolfi might even resign, should be read in the context of Merkel’s past career.

Schäuble wiederum habe nur zufällig von dem Treffen vorab erfahren und zwar nicht von der Kanzlerin, sondern weil ihm Lagarde davon erzählte, berichtet die „Bild“-Zeitung. Und zitiert einen anonym gebliebenen Berater Schäubles mit den Worten (über Merkel): „Das war eine Solo-Nummer von der Dame.“ Außerdem habe der Beamte in Schäubles Ministerium noch hinterher geschickt: „Merkel lässt sich gerade über den Tisch ziehen.“

So the Bild reckons Wolfi wasn’t invited to the meeting in Berlin where Hollande, Merkel, Juncker, Draghi, and Lagarde got together. (A Bild trigger-warning is probably appropriate, but still.) They also quote an anonymous source as saying “it was one of the lady’s solo numbers” and that Merkel “is getting the wool pulled over her eyes”.

All I can say here is: Watch out! Also, there’s this, which at least has a name attached to it and some direct speech:

„Wolfgang Schäuble geht keine faulen Kompromisse ein, er wird seine Glaubwürdigkeit nicht gefährden“, sagte der CSU-Politiker Hans Michelbach der „Bild“. Und fügte hinzu: „Und ohne Schäuble stimmt die Fraktion nicht zu.“

So, according to a CSU MP, Michelbach, the party won’t vote for anything Schäuble doesn’t support. The first problem here is that Michelbach isn’t in his party. The second, and much more important, is that there’s a word for grey men from Bavaria who patronise Angela Merkel: dead. Or at least mundtot. And just try re-reading that first quote. Either Bild really did make it up – not impossible for them – or someone really went out of their way to make trouble.

Everyone’s now rapid-rebutted the story, which of course they would have done if it was true. But nobody should doubt that she would get rid of Schäuble in a hot minute if that seemed expedient, nor that she’d be entirely willing to use SPD votes to crush Michelbach and Co, if she didn’t just call their bluff. That the AfD was last seen suing itself over whether to elect delegates to a party conference or find a hall big enough for the whole membership only underlines the point.

The graveyard is full of the indispensable, and the CDU chapel within it is full of grand sub-Helmut Kohl male egos who got in Merkel’s way.

Occupational shifts in the UK

Following up on the ideas in this post, here’s an interesting chart from the Bank of England Inflation Report.

composhift

In our model, people advance along at least locally optimal career paths in expansions, and then have to find a new one in recessions. So you’d expect job tenure, marked in green, to reflect the business cycle – people accumulate it during expansions and lose it in recessions – and that’s precisely what we see. In 1996-2000, when unemployment dropped sharply, it was a strongly negative contributor to wage growth. After that, it began to be a positive contribution as the new hires progressively accumulated tenure and advanced along their career paths. We also see a bit of this after the .com crash. However, it didn’t become a big negative item after the great financial crisis, perhaps because unemployment didn’t rise as much as expected.

The effect of change in qualifications has been quite surprising; it was negative for most of the boom, and then very positive immediately post-crisis.

From 1999 to 2007, workers changing between occupations seems to have been a significant contributor to wage growth (about +0.2% a year). Between 1996 and 2002, workers changing between industries was a positive contribution, but it then swung negative between 2002 and 2006, before becoming positive again in 2007.

During the great financial crisis, it was significantly negative, and it then became positive in the recovery. Since then, it’s disappeared as a factor. Change between occupations, however, was strongly positive in the crisis, erratic and noisy in the recovery, and since Q1 2013, has become very strongly negative. So has the effect of job tenure. At the moment, the combination of tenure and occupational change accounts for -0.75 percentage points of wage growth. The strong negative tenure effect is comparable to that in the late 90s expansion, implying significant net hiring. The occupational change effect is, however, unprecedentedly awful, and it is increasing.

This is consistent with the perverse selection I proposed in the original post. The big difference between now and the 90s experience, though, is that the occupational shift effect is much bigger.

Which is also consistent with making Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants stand around Finsbury Park station wearing a hi-viz vest to no particular purpose.

The snakes-and-ladders model, again

They say the first rule of editing is “kill your darlings”. The first rule of science, however, is “sacrifice your darlings humanely in accordance with the research ethics committee guidelines, but keep their brains for further investigation”. So it is with this post. Per Mason, apparently the GFC looks a lot different to past recessions and it’s important to include the full span of the ECEC data back to 1986. So here goes.

The ECEC civilian workers series doesn’t go back to 1986, and neither does all workers, so I picked on the series for “private industry” – after all you’d expect public sector employment to be less responsive to the business cycle by definition – which does. The orange dots on the chart mark ECEC data points, while the blue ones mark the composition-weighted ECI series for private industry. ECEC after 2002 is quarterly, and is averaged to give an annual figure.

snakes

The big orange outlier is 2002. ECEC was issued as a slightly different series in 2002-2003, so perhaps we should exclude that one. I’ve plotted regression lines for the two series, orange and blue respectively, and for ECEC excluding 2002, black.

As you can see, ECI is still more cyclical than ECEC (R^2=0.33 vs 0.03 – ten times as much). Excluding 2002 helps a bit, but not enough (R^2=0.33 vs 0.11, three times as much). The correlation between the change in ECEC for the private sector and the output gap is 0.19, and that between private sector ECI and the output gap is 0.58. The blue outlier is 1985-1986.

Purely visually, it looks like the difference between the two series is in fact greatest in the 1980s, but any effect is accounted for by three data points (’86, ’87, ’88) and in any case, it seems to have disappeared 30 years ago. Alternatively, the BLS has changed the method it uses to collect ECEC several times in that period and this might be an artefact.

Testing the snakes-and-ladders model

Just to follow up on this post, a simple test of the model would be to check if the ECEC (i.e. not normalised for compositional shifts) wages series is strongly correlated with the output gap. Output gap is easy enough – real potential GDP and real GDP are in FRED, and we convert this to a gap expressed in % of GDP:

The ECEC’s not in FRED, though, and in fact it’s tiresomely split up into three series (here, here, and here). But that shouldn’t detain us long. Without further ado, here’s the chart:

ecec-rgap

Looks like a nice smooth correlation, and in fact the correlation coefficient is a very decent 0.51 for the annual data from 1991 to 2014. For the period 2003-2014 I’ve averaged the quarterly observations. But that’s just the classical effect, right? We need to compare the two indices. Here’s a plot with both series from 2002 to 2014 against the output gap.

ecec-vs-eci

It doesn’t look like I can replicate the result that the ECEC is more cyclical than the ECI, at least for the period 2002-2014. The correlation between the annual change in ECI and the output gap for that period is 0.83 and that for ECEC is 0.73. The covariance in ECEC is higher than ECI but both are really low (0.03 and 0.01).

A little model of the labour market.

JW Mason has an interesting discovery among the data. Specifically, it looks like the US data series for wages, normalised for shifts in the composition of jobs, is much less cyclical than the raw data. In other words, the business cycle seems to affect wages through composition shifts. In recessions, people lose jobs and eventually get hired back into ones with lower productivity and pay than they had before. People who manage to stick to their jobs through the crisis don’t see much difference. In booms, people who lose their jobs (or quit) tend to get hired into ones with higher productivity, and pay, than they had before.

This makes sense. Imagine that people try to pick a job that suits them – or in economicspeak, that maximises their labour productivity. Imagine also that firms try to hire people who suit their requirements. I doubt this will be very difficult. This is a pretty basic market setup, matching workers and vacancies. Now, consider that people tend to acquire skills and knowledge as they work. This might be something exciting, or it might be as dull as someone in sales building up a contacts book. As a result, people will tend to get onto some sort of career path, picking a speciality and getting better at it.

This might be horizontal – people with a highly transferable skill who move across industries – but I think it’s more likely to be vertical. As they gain in skill, knowledge, or just insidership, they are likely to get paid more. We should at least consider that this matches higher productivity. But then, there’s an explosion – suddenly a lot of firms fail, and their employees are on the dole. They now need to search their way back into work. It is likely, at least, that if they have to find it in another sector or even another firm they will lose some of the human capital they acquired in the past. The unemployed are suddenly driven off their optimal productivity path, and are usually under pressure to take any job that comes along, no matter how suboptimal. Until they get back to where they were before the crisis, on their new paths or on their old ones, the economy will forego the difference between their potential and actual production. You could call it an output gap, but that’s taken, so let’s call it the snakes-and-ladders model.

This, in itself, is enough to explain why unemployment is a thing – you can’t price yourself back into a job with a firm that has gone bust – and why productivity might be depressed for some time post-crisis. In the long term people will climb the ladder again, but this is deceptive. Society, and even firms, can think of a long term. Individuals cannot, as life is short. As the man said – in the long run, we are all dead. Hanging around at reduced productivity is a waste of your time. The recovery phase represents a substantial deadweight loss of production to everyone, concentrated on the unemployed. And there are dynamic effects. Contact books get stale, and technology changes, so the longer people stay either unemployed or underemployed, the bigger the gap. This little model also gives us hysteresis.

But we can go further with the snakes-and-ladders model. Markets, we are often told, are information-processing mechanisms. Let’s look at this from a Diego Gambetta-inspired signalling perspective. The only genuinely reliable way to know if someone is any good at a job is to let them try. I have, after all, every reason to pad my CV, overstate my achievements, and conceal my failures. The only genuinely reliable way to know if someone is an acceptable boss is to work for them. They have every reason to talk in circles about pay and repress their authoritarian streak.

In a tight labour market, people move along close-to-optimal career paths. In doing so, they gain both experience, and also reputation, its outward sign. Importantly, they also gain information about themselves – you don’t know, after all, if you can do the job until you try. The same process is happening with firms and with individual entrepreneurs or managers. Because the information is the product of actual experience, it is costly and therefore trustworthy.

Now let’s blow the system up. We introduce a shock that causes a large number of basically random firms to fail and sack everyone. Because the failure of these firms is not informative about the individuals in them, the effect is to destroy the accumulated information in the labour market. Whatever the workers knew about Bust plc is now irrelevant. In so far as they’re now looking for jobs outside the industry, what Bust plc knew about them is also irrelevant. In the absence of information, the market for labour is now in an inefficient out-of-equilibrium state, where it will stay until the information is re-created. Walrasian tatonnement, right?

This explains an important point in Mason’s data that we’ve not got to yet. Why should people thrown off their career paths take much lower productivity jobs? You don’t need much information to know if someone can mow the lawn. In the post-crisis, disequilibrium state, low productivity jobs are privileged over high productivity jobs.

It strikes me that this little model explains a number of major economic problems. The UK’s productivity paradox, for example, is nicely explained by a huge compositional shift, in part driven by labour market reforms designed to make the unemployed take the first job-ish that comes along. Students who graduate into a recession lose out by about $100,000 over their lives. Verdoorn’s law, the strong empirical correlation between productivity and employment, also seems pretty obvious. Axel Leijonhufvud’s idea of the corridor of stability also fits. In the corridor, the market is self-adjusting, but once it gets outside its control limits, anything can happen.

And, you know, despite all the heterodoxy, it’s microfounded. Workers and employers are entirely rational. Money is just money. It’s not quite simple enough to have a single representative agent, because it needs at least two employers and two workers with dissimilar endowments, but it doesn’t need any actors who aren’t empirically observable.

It also has clear policy implications. If the unemployed sit it out and look for something better, you would expect a jobless recovery and then a productivity boom – like the US in the 1990s. If the unemployed take the first job-like position that comes along, you would expect a jobs miracle with terrible productivity growth, flat to falling wages, and a long period of foregone GDP growth. Like the UK in the 2010s. And if your labour market institutions are designed to prevent the information destruction in the first place, with a fallback to Keynesian reflation if that doesn’t cut it? Well, that sounds like Germany in the 2010s.

Call it Hayekian Keynesianism. Macroeconomic stabilisation is vital to keep the information-processing function of the labour market from breaking down.

That said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out that there are a whole lot of structural forces here that discriminate against specific groups. The post-crisis skew to low productivity jobs wouldn’t work, after all, if workers weren’t forced sellers of labour to capitalists. And there is one very large group of people who tend to get kicked off their optimal career path with lasting consequences. They’re about 50% of the population.

Pay no attention to the social democrat behind the curtain.

Perhaps we’ve been watching the wrong German politician throughout the whole Greece/Eurogroup drama. Usually, the Vice-Chancellor of Germany is one of those posts that comes with a lot more dignity than it does power, like the US vice-presidency in the pre-Cheney days when it wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit. It tends to be given out as a decorative title to a junior coalition partner, rather in the way Nick Clegg was given the title of Deputy Prime Minister, something which has even less basis in British constitutional practice.

But Bernd Hüttemann reminded me of something important on Twitter yesterday, as follows.

Sigmar Gabriel, for it is he, is not just vice-chancellor and SPD leader, but also federal minister of economic affairs, and the minister responsible for government-wide coordination of European policy. The ministry gives details of its role here.

It has to ensure that the German government has a common line-to-take towards the European institutions, to keep the Bundestag informed, and to give directions to the German representatives in COREPER 1. That’s the boring-but-important stuff such as Competition, Energy, Agriculture, etc. It also gives directions jointly with the ministry of foreign affairs to German representatives in the more politically glamorous COREPER 2, including the General Affairs council, Justice & Home, and crucially, ECOFIN. It is the government’s authority on European law. Its officials chair most committees on European issues within the German federal government, including the permanent secretaries’ committee on European affairs, which they lead jointly with the foreign ministry.

The foreign minister is, of course, Gabriel’s fellow Social Democrat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This gives him a lot of agenda-setting power and a lot of access to Angela Merkel. He probably has more executive power than Joschka Fischer did as vice-chancellor and foreign minister. Having a bigger gang behind him, and also a European crisis, means he also has more than FDP leaders Westerwelle or Rösler although they had the same ministry.

This is important. In a sense, even decades after reunification, we still see two Germanies. People on the Left tend to swing between admiration for its social democracy, long tenancies, environmental commitment, demonstrative feminism, cycleways, safe-standing terraces at the football, and the like, and utter exasperation with its commitment to European monetarism, bourgeoisity, inflation dread, and tolerance of Bild Zeitung‘s ravings at the Greeks. People on the Right tend to wish they could have a budget surplus, a Bundesbanky monetary policy, and more public churchiness, except when they’re convinced Germany is a terrible warning of the inevitable doom of the welfare state. It wasn’t that long ago.

Wolfgang Schäuble, of course, personifies the hard-money version of Germany. But Germany doesn’t only have a finance ministry. It also has a ministry of economic affairs that has an eye to industrial priorities and real institutional strength, rather like the brief Department of Economic Affairs Harold Wilson set up in the UK back in the 1960s was meant to be. The DEA was intended pretty much as an anti-Treasury, and I think we can read Gabriel’s role at the moment as something similar – a growth-oriented lobby that would structurally lean towards a lower exchange rate, because it represents mostly export-heavy manufacturers and industrial workers.

In practice, a lower effective exchange rate for Germany means keeping the Euro show on the road, complete with Greece. Either leaving the euro, or kicking out the south, would surely cause the rate to rocket upwards with ruinous consequences for Gabriel’s clients. It’s therefore very significant that the export lobby in German politics has managed to get more influence over Germany’s interface with the European institutions. And here’s the man himself:

This might explain an important feature of the agreement the Eurogroup eventually reached. Greece is said to have “capitulated” by accepting the “November 2012 targets”. However, the agreement specifically doesn’t set any fiscal target for the year 2015, and proposes that we meet again in June to negotiate a new program replacing that of November 2012. Therefore, the targets don’t exist for this year, and those for future years are by the by. Perhaps they will influence the talks in June, but this strikes me as a concession without much substance. A bit like making the FDP leader vice-chancellor. And the talks will be heavily influenced by the boring technical stuff Gabriel’s ministry has most power over.

This might also explain why Schäuble seems quite so grumpy these days. Much of the content of policy reaches German officials in Brussels and elsewhere via Gabriel and Steinmeier’s staffs. In a real sense, he only has full and undivided control when ECOFIN (or the Eurogroup, which isn’t explicitly evoked by the ministry’s text) is meeting at ministerial level, and he is physically present. Which puts an interesting light on the whole row about that nonpaper that was supposedly issued after he left the building…

When he isn’t, his main means of influence is either shouting the odds in the media, or else going via Angela Merkel, who is of course free to support him or not. Merkel’s interests are well served by this. She keeps the options open, and avoids having to explicitly back either lobby. At the same time, it rules out either the two social democrats, or else Schäuble plus one of them, ganging up on her to commit Germany to some policy of their own. I would therefore cautiously discount some of Schäuble’s bluster in front of journalists.

When contracts are contractionary

An interesting twitter debate between Alan Beattie and Frances Coppola, regarding the connection between Greek “structural reforms” and the macro-economy.

Alan argues that shortening business-to-business payment terms and improving contract enforcement should just generally be a good thing and shouldn’t have any macro effects in the short term.

Frances retorts that it’s always cash flow that causes businesses to fail, and anything that tightens cash flow will cause more business failures as the first-round effect.

Alan responds that companies who benefit from going slow on payments are usually just well-connected rent seekers and that they’re exploiting ones that have more potential upside.

I think we can be a bit more precise here. If money gets rid of the need for a double coincidence of wants, finance gets rid of the need for a double coincidence of timing. I don’t necessarily need to wait to sell in order to buy, if I can use trade credit, for example. One of the earliest known financial instruments is just a bill issued by one business that gives the customer 30 or 90 days or whatever to pay, and can be assigned to someone else.

The point here is to increase the value of economic activity that you can carry out before you have to draw on your working capital to pay a bill in cash. The presumption is that businesses are usually constrained by their cash flow, and trade credit is a way of relaxing this constraint and using their holdings of cash more intensively. In that sense, it’s a social mechanism that increases the money supply by increasing the velocity of circulation.

It’s possible to create a huge credit bubble based just on this financial technology – Kindleberger is full of them – even if the cash paid in final settlement is gold or silver or big rocks.

If we now intervene in some way and insist that people settle up their accounts, for cash, faster, what happens? Well, one way of looking at it is that all this informal credit is non-monetary economic activity. Now, it has to become monetised, which means that the demand for money has increased sharply. Another way of looking at it was the one I hinted at earlier. If we count the trade credit as an increase in the supply of money, then either the rest of the money supply must expand to accommodate it, or else the money supply must shrink.

Whether we look at this as an increase in the demand for money, or a reduction of the supply of money, it does mean that the marginal borrower’s interest rate is going up, possibly dramatically, and they also face liquidity risk. Here’s your contraction.

Now of course this can be solved; monetary policy can change.

In practice, the most likely route by which the outstanding bills get monetised is through a bank, because where else do you go to get cash? We can get around this problem if the banking sector’s balance sheet expands enough to take on the outstanding trade credit, or alternatively, if the monetary authority puts more money into circulation. (This is the same thing, in a sense – imagine an economy with one bank.)

The first option means that the banks may need more capital, because they are taking up a bigger share of outstanding risks, the second, that monetary policy must be adjusted. In fact, taking up the first option will probably involve some of the second, as the banks bring more paper into the central bank discount window. But if the banking sector is structurally constrained in some way, and the monetary authority is located in some other country, well, yes, the reform will be contractionary. Better, it will be contractionary, full stop, unless someone does something to counter it.

It’s true, as Alan Beattie says, that slow payment might be one of the ways rent-seekers exploit their suppliers. Anyone who’s ever been involved with a small business will know that there are a lot of unreliable payers out there. However, this is true of the UK and probably of Finland. It’s also idiosyncratically true, not the sort of thing easily accessible by airport-to-hotel reformers. And it’s more true that small businesses will be more likely to run out of cash, if there’s a general drive to collect on bills quicker, than big ones.

The classic mechanism of an economic crisis in an economy that runs on store credit is set out very well in Kindleberger. Chains of bills, representing the outstanding volumes at risk, grow until something happens and causes the marginal creditor to demand cash money. Then a cascade-failure of bankruptcies occurs. It is not obvious, to say the least, that this is desirable.

Yes, this reform is contractionary, and implementing it requires that the monetary authority pushes against the contraction.

Hamburg

It’s probably worth keeping an eye on German elections at the moment. Hamburg voted today, and the results below will update as more results come in, via Der Tagesspiegel. Basically, the SPD won big but will need a coalition partner, probably the Greens, the FDP and the Left had a respectable showing, the AfD version of the far-Right just, just scraped into a western German parliament for the first time, and the CDU had a nightmare, literally their worst result ever.

Click on “Gewinn/Verlust” for the changes in % terms – the CDU lost 5.9%, the AfD picked up 5.8%. Ouch. But most of all, the Non-Voter Party had a great night, picking up 44.5% of the vote.

On that score, I expect the main effect to be “That’s over with now” rather than “Chase the AfD”.