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.

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.


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”.

Euro-European politics over #Greece

This is old news now, but it’s a good example of a theme we should be watching in the Greek negotiations – as it were, Euro-European tensions. Conflict in the EU, whether between nations, parties, lobbies, or individuals, tends to be expressed as conflict between the institutions.

So Jean-Claude Juncker has quietly said that the Commission could accept the withdrawal of the troika mission from Greece, which matters because a lot of the staff will be from the Commission. In this, of course, he’s accepted a Greek negotiating point although not a very important one.

He immediately gets a blast of verbal from Volker Kauder, the chairman of the CDU parliamentary party, who says he’s going soft and the identity of Europe is at risk and Juncker doesn’t get to decide what the Bundestag thinks. Get that combination of the identity of Europe on one hand, and pseudo-eurosceptic tractors-off-our-lawn stuff!

But then again, it’s not as if Kauder has any right to tell Juncker what to do. As he knows very well, if there is an agreement, he will have to pass the bits that affect bilateral treaties through the Bundestag, and of course he will. That’s what party whips do in life. When Merkel says so, he’ll spring to it, knowing that the job is a great platform if he wants to be chancellor one day.

There’s probably a good case to be made that the Greeks are right in trying to pick off Juncker and the Commission. The whole point of the Commission as an institution is that being in charge of the administration and the policy staff support is important. Traditionally, it gets to set the agenda, and the member states get to use a veto.

Things are more complicated these days, with the stronger parliament and the intergovernmental institutions like the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the Eurogroup, but I for one wouldn’t bet on any final text being very heavily influenced indeed by the Commission staffers who drafted it and who will watch over its implementation.

Also, the Commission is more committed than any other institution to The Project, with which it is deliberately synonymous. And it has a lot of independence. Juncker only needs the support of his own institution to act, while even the Germans need to line up a coalition in the council of ministers or the eurogroup if they want to do anything positive.

The ECB is a bit like this, too, but it actually has less independence, as its directorate is chosen by the national central banks and actually reports back to them. By contrast, although politicians always try to give orders to European commissioners, the commission is meant to reject this.

It’s an interesting question which institution would jump which way on the question of a Cyprus-like scenario, staying in the € with capital controls in place. Both the Commission and the ECB are highly committed to keeping the project going, but it comes down to which of them is more committed to the original vision of open borders and free trade. The national finance ministers can accept a Cypriot solution most of all. Neither institution would like it, but the ECB could trigger it.

Probably, Greece is hoping to manage the ECB into not doing anything drastic, while convincing the Commission, so that the Council of Ministers can adopt a text the Commission cooks up.

#charlie impact: the UK joins the Schengen Information System

At the extraordinary meeting of interior ministers in Paris back on the 11th January, immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attack, the following statement was issued. Nobody paid it much mind at the time, but there was something genuinely interesting in there:

We hope to swiftly finalize work engaged under the auspices of the Commission to step up the detection and screening of travel movements by European nationals crossing the European Union’s external borders. To that end, we will more extensively detect and monitor certain passengers based on objective, concrete criteria which respect smooth border crossings, fundamental liberties and security requirements.

Furthermore, we are of the opinion that the rules of the Schengen Borders Code should be amended in a timely fashion to allow for broader consultation of the Schengen Information System during the crossing of external borders by individuals enjoying the right to free movement.

This is some high-grade diplospeak, so let’s unpack this a bit.

External borders here mean the borders that demarcate the member states of the European Union from the wider world. Sometimes, the external border of the EU is also the external border of the Schengen zone. Inside this zone, there are normally no controls on the internal borders between the participating countries.

Obviously, there’s no problem with consulting the Schengen Information System, SIS II – the enormous shared database of suspects maintained jointly by the Schengen states – in this case. However, the EU external border isn’t always identical with the Schengen zone external border, because not all EU member states are also Schengen participants. If you’ve managed to cross from the Schengen zone into some non-Schengen EU state, your identity won’t be checked against SIS II when you cross the external border out of the EU. Nor will you be checked against it when you cross the external border back into the EU. But because you’re an “individual enjoying the right of free movement”, you’re unlikely to be bothered much there either.

So, “amend the rules in a timely fashion to allow for broader consultation of the Schengen Information System during the crossing of external borders by individuals enjoying the right to free movement” can be translated as something like “the non-Schengen EU countries are going to integrate their border control databases into SIS II”.

Which is why the first thing I said when I saw the statement was: “It looks like we just joined Schengen”. (It was easy – my dad predicted this years ago.) And now, just under a month later, GOV.UK lights up with the following statement:

The Second Generation Schengen Information System (SISII) will provide law enforcement alerts on wanted criminals, suspected terrorists, missing people, and stolen or missing property. A meeting of ministers in Europe has formally approved the UK joining the system on 13 April 2015.

Not, of course, that they’re going to take down the border posts – don’t expect to leave your passport at home any time soon. They’ve definitely signed up for the big database, though. As usual, the UK is much more integrated into the EU than either it, or the EU, would admit.

Does Russia want Donetsk, or just to keep the conflict going?

The other day, someone on twitter said it felt like the news was working up to an end-of-season finale, a big finish for the longest running of TV shows. On Thursday, as Yanis Varoufakis and Wolfgang Schäuble were failing to agree on whether or not they agreed in Berlin, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were heading in their respective Airbus A310s to Kiev and then Moscow. Diplomats must be delighted at times like this; suddenly the job is as important as they spend their time making out it is.

As it turned out, Merkel and Hollande‘s mission only resulted in agreement to look at a draft ceasefire implementing the Minsk agreement from last year, a document widely considered to be a dead letter. The new content in it seems to have been more concessions of territory to the pro-Russian side.

All this diplomacy was triggered by the Americans floating the idea of providing Ukraine with modern armaments. Back in Germany, Merkel was rather sceptical about the idea at the NATO security conference in Munich, saying variously that there seemed to be plenty of weapons around and that no amount of them would impress Putin. (There may be plenty of AKs, tanks, and artillery, but the US proposal focuses on communications and electronic warfare, and perhaps anti-tank guided weapons.)

In general, the level of anxiety about the situation seems to have spiked in the last few days. Hollande has been saying that he fears total war. You might well ask what on earth is happening in the Donbass if it’s not war, but the fear is that it might get worse, moving from a so-called hybrid conflict confined to the area around Donetsk to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Carl Bildt thinks it is possible; Anders Fogh Rasmussen thinks it is possible; former NATO deputy supreme commander Sir Richard Sherriff thinks so, and wonders where the British prime minister has got to. (Good question.)

Here’s a question. Hollande and Merkel are working from the assumption that handing over a bigger area of territory to the separatists would end the conflict, and that their territorial control reflects the wishes of the population. On the other hand, though, they are also working from the assumption that it’s not the separatist leadership who decides. Hollande and Merkel didn’t address themselves to Alexander Zakharchenko in Donetsk, but rather to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In a real sense, they clearly believe that it’s Putin who decides what happens there.

If the Ukrainians were to accept such a proposal, and offer to give up the whole Donbass, would Putin accept it? I am not sure he would.

A DNR entity of real size and contiguity, a Republic of Novorossiya, would be disturbingly big and independent, and likely to make trouble. It would, however, still be small enough that the Ukrainians might hope to take it back one day. It would also set a precedent Putin would hate – as well as orange-clad protestors occupying city squares in the hope of joining Europe, he would have to worry about sovok or natsbol types with AKs hoping to join the Soviet Union, as it were, by setting up their own novorossiyas. Insurgency would have become an option for his own constituency. Annexing it to Russia would be massively provocative and would pose the question of how to demobilise and disarm the DNR.

Further, if you want to join NATO or the European Union, the rules are clear – you have to leave your irredenta at the door. The precondition of membership is that you wind up any geopolitical conflicts you have open. Nobody wants to attach the trigger of the NATO air forces to a checkpoint dispute outside Luhansk – it’s too risky. So long as the conflict in Ukraine is not resolved, Ukrainian membership of NATO is ruled out. The little green men are the guarantee. On the other hand, a Ukraine reeling from the loss of the Donbass would be very likely to do anything at all to get under the NATO security guarantee for the rest of the country.

Just keeping the conflict going, however, suits Russian interests rather well. Anyone who has an interest in the matter has to go to Moscow first. Ukrainian NATO membership is ruled out. The DNR stays deniable, but also dependent, so the level of violence can be turned up or down as is expedient. As some people from Transdniestria turned up in Crimea, it could act as a pool of proxy fighters for use elsewhere, in the Caucasus, the Baltics, or against Russian dissidents. And the horse may sing; the option of a counter-Maidan movement based there is kept open, although the chances of that happening must be minimal now.

Polling seems to suggest that a solution keeping the Donbass in Ukraine has strong public support, including in the rebel zone, although it’s not obvious to me how they surveyed it. If it’s a matter of a form of words that grants Donetsk what might be termed devo-max within Ukraine, though, I can’t help doubting anyone would fight for that so tenaciously, or with such means – main battle tanks, artillery in such quantity that the shells are delivered by the trainload. And such a deal has been on the table for months. Clearly, it’s the conflict that matters, not any particular political arrangement, and it seems there is only one man who can call a halt.

On the other hand, arming the side fighting against what looks more and more like the Russian regular army is a frightening prospect. No-one should doubt that for a moment, and I imagine the Russians will take care to remind us on a regular basis. Also, we need to think hard about getting the Ukrainians some money before they run out of foreign exchange completely.

Stocks, Flows, GDP Warrants, Negotiating Constraints, Inter-Blogger Tension: Greece

So, if we were to make a little leap of faith, how could SYRIZA and the troika, or eurogroup, or shall we just say the Euros, come to an agreement?

The first issue, I think, is that any agreement needs to pass two tests. It needs to be both acceptable, or it wouldn’t be agreement, and it needs to be effective, or it would be pointless. The red-lines on both sides are pretty clear. SYRIZA went to the polls demanding some measure of debt relief. I take that to mean a reduction in the face value of the outstanding stock of debt to the Eurozone, plus the ECB, plus the IMF. Angela Merkel has stated that no further “haircut” is acceptable. Everyone assumes she is the ultimate veto actor on the Euros’ side.

On the other hand, as everyone seems to think, the debt service, i.e. the interest on the outstanding stock of debt, isn’t a big deal and therefore the stock of debt isn’t either. What matters is the primary surplus, the net transfer from Greece to the Euros, that the current agreement requires every year from here on in. The test of an effective agreement is whether it reduces this enough to restart the Greek economy. The Euros’ target is 4.5% of GDP. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister and everyone in the blogosphere’s new best mate, wants to cut it to between 1 and 1.5%. Clearly, agreement is possible somewhere between the two values, especially as nobody on the Euros’ side has committed to veto any particular number.

Ironically, the parties can agree on quite a few different options that would work to a greater or lesser extent, but they can’t accept them politically. This is of course better than the other way around. Arguably, the other way around is what we’ve had so far – acceptable, but ineffective.

A lot of people would also agree that the outstanding stock of debts is not really very important. It is, per Krugman, an accounting fiction, per Daniel Davies, the means by which the Euros try to control the Greek government budget, in order to impose something called “structural reform”. Alan Beattie, in a superb blog post, points out that the phrase “structural reform” is nonsensical.

First of all, there is no such thing as “reform” as such. You can’t ring up and order 20 40′ containers full of reform. Reforms are, more than anything else, inherently specific and context-dependent. The enterprise of structural reform is based on the idea that the market knows best, as it embodies the diffuse wisdom of those most concerned. But the reforms are meant to be chosen and delivered by civil servants parachuted (or rather, airlanded) in from some other country, usually isolated from everyone but the airport-to-hotel cab driver. This is at least ironic, and arguably perverse.

Second, reform has goals and in this case the goal is the delivery of the 4.5% annual primary surplus. Looking at this from a sectoral-balance point of view, if the public sector is to net-save 4.5% of GDP, either the private sector must take on a similar amount of net debt, or else the country must run a similar current-account surplus. So far, Greece has tried to reduce its CA deficit by demand destruction, or in other words, cutting down trees around Athens to save on fuel oil. What the structural reformers have in their heads, though, is that Greece increases its exports.

This implies both that somebody else imports them, and also that the Greek private sector increases its capacity. Firms expand by using more capital, one way or another. This seems unlikely in the context of debt-deflation. Reform very often costs money; when Germany carried out what it now thinks of as structural reform in the early 2000s, it blew its budget deficit targets with the Euros quite comprehensively.

Also, the difference between Alan Beattie and Daniel Davies is that Alan accepts that structural reform can be, and often is, stupid. Beattie’s archetypal Christmas-tree program includes a mixture of ideas anyone could agree with, ideas that are impossible to implement, and ideas that in context are insane, but might, tragically, be implemented. Capacity has to go up but demand has to go down. The private sector needs to borrow to invest, but credit has to be tighter. Pensions must be cut to increase the pensioners’ competitiveness in the cut-throat business of retirement. Daniel Davies’ Aunt Agatha doesn’t just want you to do language classes; she also wants you to wear earplugs during them, and also attend the right sort of church like the right sort of people, just to show willing, like.

There is surely a case that the Greeks are the best placed to know what their problems are, and further that SYRIZA is the party that is least complicit in keeping the problems that way. That means, of course, that the reforms must be acceptable to them.

But we already know that the level of the primary surplus is negotiable. We’ve established that. The point is how to deliver something that amounts to debt relief in Greece, but not to a write-off at face value. How can we get to yes?

Here’s an important chart, showing the annual repayments in euros for the various official loans.


You’ll notice that in the short term, the IMF predominates. You’ll also notice that a lot of the repayments are in the really long, we-are-all-dead run, out to the 2040s and 2050s. This is the very definition of a political number. And who owns it? You might be surprised.

Everyone always says Germany, but out of the €194bn owing to Eurozone sovereigns, €104bn came from France, Spain, and Italy together. When the history is written, it should take note that Spain in its troubles put its hand in its pocket for serious amounts of money. At the time, there was a lot of talk that the EFSF-and-then-EFSM-and-then-ESM had no credibility because they stood behind it. The record shows they came through. Of course, this makes the idea of a southern front against austerity so much more difficult, as they can afford to lose the money so much less.

This is, I think, where there is a bit of play in the mechanism. The Greeks are floating the idea of linking the debt repayments to growth, like an income-contingent student loan or perhaps more like a debt-for-equity swap. This is, of course, rather like the GDP warrants proposal that was fashionable a couple of years back.

In context, this means that the payoff comes through if the reforms actually work; a discipline never before imposed on such a programme, although of course they always want it for everyone else. This is substantially better than the other option, which is just to extend-and-pretend again.

Although the payoff structure is equity-like, it’s still an obligation of the same face value, so it does not constitute a write-off in the strict sense. As it doesn’t require a cash transfer until some target is reached, though, it is debt relief in a very important sense from a Greek point of view. In an accounting sense, of course, it is – the risk-adjusted net present value would be lower by some percentage depending on your guess about the path of Greek GDP in the fairly distant future.

The further out you go, of course, the easier this is, but then again, the test of effectiveness is what happens to the primary surplus requirement – right? And a swap of bonds for warrants with terms out in the 2040s is a better bet, I think, than hoping for a European fiscal union with actual transfers and without balanced-budget amendments.

As for the IMF, well, will this mean another story about the Europeans hoping the Americans will lend a hand?

Syrian reservists

Why are hundreds of Syrians turning up in cargo ships between Italy and Greece?

It seems that the Syrian government is trying to mobilise its army reserve, and the reservists aren’t keen to go.

It’s fairly well known that the government doesn’t trust much of its army, and has relied on its spooks, some elite units, its party militia, and international volunteers. Now, it seems they’re short-handed again. Meanwhile, ferries that operated from Syria to Turkey have been shut down, probably because too many people were leaving to dodge the column.

The timing – the callout began in mid-November – is suggestive.