The Czech Growth Engine?

Interesting news from the Czech Republic in this week:

The Czech republic has joined Slovenia among new member states with higher levels of wealth per capita than old member Portugal, according to European Commission statistics.

The central European country enjoyed gross income per capita of 73 percent of the EU 25 average last year compared to 71 percent in Portugal, according to the latest estimate by the commission’s statistical wing, Eurostat….

The results have left Slovenia and the Czech republic chasing Greece, on 83 percent, as the next old member state to overtake, with Slovenia set to draw level with Greece by 2007 and the Czech republic to narrow the gap further in the next two years, the study predicts.

This now raises some interesting questions. How will Slovenia’s future growth compare with that of the Czech Republic (remember Slovenia is about to join the eurozone on 1 January 2007 while the Czech Republic is in no particular hurry to join)? What is the relation between Portugal’s low-growth and eurozonemembership? Will the Czech Republic now overtake Greece?

We can also, I think, see more clearly some appropriate comparisons for testing the ‘euro has been a spectacular success’ hypothesis: we can look at the UK vs France, Finland vs Sweden and Denmark, and we can look at the Czech Republic vs Portugal.

UK Housing Boom Over?

This is the first really concrete piece of news we’ve had on the UK housing situation. George Wimpey Plc, Britain’s second-biggest homebuilder by revenue have just announced that full-year pretax profit probably fell for the first time in a decade:

U.K. sales slipped 1 percent to 12,100 homes, with the average selling price dropping 4 percent, more than analysts had expected. Pretax profit was as much as 22 percent below 2004’s record level and at the lower end of estimates, Chief Executive Officer Peter Johnson said in an interview today.

Prospective buyers shunned purchases as Britain’s benchmark interest rate reached 4.75 percent last year, making mortgage payments more expensive. A quarter-point cut by the Bank of England on Aug. 4 has yet to revive prices. Wimpey last reported a decline in annual pretax profit in 1995. The second-half figure also fell, Johnson said today.

Not So Fast!

It is surely welcome news to find the German citizenry content with Angela Merkel, and that this new found contentment is feeding into more positive views about immediate economic prospects. But oughtn’t we to remember that there is a thing called the first hundred days, and a phenomenon known as the ‘honeymoon period’.

There is also – thank you Nietzsche – something called the ‘will to believe’.

I therefore think, along the lines of ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ that it is a bit too early to be saying that the latest bounce in consumer confidence:

“is the latest indication that a broad-based recovery in Europe’s largest economy could finally be around the corner”.

I think we should wait for a broad-based and sustained recovery in confidence first. What we have is another indication that people are feeling rather better, and that is always good news. But lets just see how they feel when the first ‘reform’ package is unveiled, shall we.

The good news, however, was eclipsed by warnings from economists and politicians that Germany’s new government should not let rising opinion polls and improving economic prospects get in the way of much needed labour market and social security reforms.

“There is a lot more to be done,” Horst Köhler, Germany’s president, told the Stern weekly in an interview published on Wednesday. “I remain convinced the republic is facing a formidable task that will require decisive action and an enormous amount of staying power.”

When The Curves Invert

Two bits of news this week appear to be unrelated. The interesting question is whether appearances are once more deceptive.

Firstly the US Treasury note situation:

At 6:23 am ET. the 10-year note yielded 4.393 percent while the two-year note yielded 4.396 percent.

Or as the FT puts it:

Yields on 10-year US Treasuries briefly fell below those on two-year notes on Tuesday for the first time in five years – a rare event that in the past has often heralded a recession.

Now there is – more or less – a consensus of opinion that this is not a harbinger of imminent recession this time round. So what then does it mean? Aha, would that we knew! There has however been another curve inversion was officially announced during the last week. According to this AFP report:

Japan’s population fell for the first time in 2005, the government said, calling it a “turning point” that will force the world’s second largest economy to adapt to a rapidly aging society….Deaths are likely to outnumber births by about 10,000 this year, the first decline since 1899 when Japan began compiling the data, health ministry figures showed

.”

The data suggest that Japan’s population may actually have been falling since October 2004.So where might the connection be? Well, back in April the soon-to-be Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made his now notorious Global Savings Glut speech. In that speech he said the following:

one well-understood source of the saving glut is the strong saving motive of rich countries with aging populations, which must make provision for an impending sharp increase in the number of retirees relative to the number of workers. With slowly growing or declining workforces, as well as high capital-labor ratios, many advanced economies outside the United States also face an apparent dearth of domestic investment opportunities. As a consequence of high desired saving and the low prospective returns to domestic investment, the mature industrial economies as a group seek to run current account surpluses and thus to lend abroad

So he was arguing that ageing populations tend to increase the savings motive and produce an investment dearth. This flow of savings looking for investment tends to nudge down global interest rates. Perhaps the best discussion I have seen anywhere of the inversion phenomenon is this one from the Morgan Stanley GEF team. Clearly this is a complex problem, and they themselves have no consensus, but I did note this point from the Japan-based Robert Feldman:

In how many of the eight inversions over the last 40 years were international markets as closely intertwined as they are today? My point is that, as long as Bank of Japan still has huge quantitative easing in place and the yen carry trade is alive and well, part of the yield curve flattening in the US will be due to international factors and doesn’t necessarily signal a recession

.”

Here there are two points, the increasing efficiency and integration of global capital markets, and the special situation in countries like Japan. So to return to where I started, are the two inversions related. My answer would be a qualified yes. There is some relation. The hard part is to determine the nature and extent of the relation.

Battle Of The Standards

An intereresting piece in the FT today about 3g standards and China. Basically there are three competing technologies: the European-backed WCDMA and US-supported CDMA-2000 standards, and the Chinese TD-SCDMA technology. There is a wikipedia entry on TD-SCDMA. Basically the Chinese system doesn’t imply the payment of license and patent fees (what a surprise) and it offers an asymmetrical data rate, i.e. it offers different speeds for downlink and uplink. The interesting isssue is, I suppose, after all the talk about China soon being the number one market in this, and the number one market in that, to ask the question just how much “upstream standards clout” will all this scale advantage eventually imply. Normally, third world economies would be expected to conform to first world standards eventually, but will the Chinese case be different?

IMF Continues Debt Relief

Today’s news is of course welcome news for everyone who cares about poverty in the third world, but going back to my Evo Morales post during the week, this policy will only really bring the benefits it could do if it is combined with a systematic drive to change the demographic profile of these countries, and this means, as well as writing-off debt, more expenditure on health and on education (and in particular on equality of opportunity female education). Really, what I think has been wrong with the IMF approach in the past has been a ‘one ring to fit them all’ policy. What we can see I think now is that this is inadequate: we need a two speed globalisation. One speed for the countries like Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Thailand etc, which are on the ramp and ready to take off, and another for those countries which need help with social spending (in order not to provoke an explosion in the political subsystem) while they get the demographic imbalances straighter. So we need a debt-pardoning-plus approach.

The International Monetary Fund’s board on Wednesday approved 100 per cent debt relief on $3.3bn owed to the fund by 19 of the world’s poorest countries.

In a statement issued after the board meeting, Rodrigo Rato, managing director, said: “This is an historic moment, which will allow these countries to increase spending in priority areas to reduce poverty, promote growth and to make progress towards achieving the millennium development goals.”

Youth Unemployment in the UK

The FT today has an article about how long-term youth unemployment is now back at 1998 levels despite a 5 billion pound benefits-to-jobs programme . Now if you go to this url, and have a look at the population pyramids for the UK you might begin to see part of the explanation for why this is happening. The cohorts now entering the UK labour market are slightly thicker than the previous ones. Coincidentally I have just put up a post on Afoe which mentions Richard Easterlin’s disadvantaged cohort theory. What is happening in the UK at the present time would, IMHO, be a good example of the Easterlin effect at work.

Long-term youth unemployment has returned to about the level it was when the government’s flagship New Deal was introduced in 1998, casting doubt over the value of the £5bn benefits-to-jobs programme.

The sharp rise in long-term youth unemployment, which has increased by 60 per cent since its low point two and a half years ago, was revealed by figures from the Office for National Statistics yesterday.

German Inflation On the Way Down

The latest inflation eport from the Federal Statistical Office in Germany says this:

The harmonised consumer price index for Germany, which is calculated for European purposes, rose by 2.3% in November 2005 compared with November 2004. Compared with the previous month, the index was down 0.5%. The estimate of 25 November 2005 was thus slightly corrected downwards.

Inflation threat, what inflation threat?