On The Trail Of Italian Debt

Looking for trends and correlations in that landslide of economic data which arrives, day in and day out, on our desks is normally something akin to trying to find a needle in a very large and raggedy haystack. From time to time, however, some things are just to obvious not to be noticed, like the ever rising levels of debt on the EU periphery and the growing demand from political leaders there for some kind of QE type initiative from the European central bank, for example. Sure, there is no obvious causal connecting here – the missing “middle term” linking the two would probably be all that ongoing deflation risk – but the inability of governments to contain their debt levels is a consequence of having low growth and low inflation, as is the wish being ever more insistently expressed by Southern Europe’s political leaders that the ECB were more like the Bank of Japan. Continue reading

The Growing Mess Which Will Be Left Behind By The Abenomics Experiment

According to wikipedia, “overdetermination is a phenomenon whereby a single observed effect is determined by multiple causes at once, any one of which alone might be enough to account for (“determine”) the effect.That is, there are more causes present than are necessary to generate the effect”.  In this strictly technical sense Japan’s deflation problem is overdetermined – there are multiple causes at work, any one of which could account for the observed phenomenon. Those who have been following the debate can simply choose their favourite – balance sheet recession, liquidity trap, fertility trap – each one, taken alone, could be sufficient as a cause. The problem this situation presents is simply epistemological – in a scientific environment the conundrum could be resolved by devising the requisite, consensually grounded, tests. Continue reading

Can demography explain Portugal’s growth slump before the crash?

The above still comes from a recent Financial Times video entitled “Portugal’s Brain Drain”, which can be found here, and which I encourage everyone to watch. The issue being raised revolves around the current acceleration of emigration from countries on the EU periphery, largely towards the EU core. Typically the emigrants are young educated people who can’t find work. There is nothing especially surprising in this, since the tendency has long existed for people to move from more depressed areas to economically more dynamic ones. The exodus from Detroit in the United States immediately comes to mind. Or Scottish people getting on the bus to make the fateful journey from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London. The Schengen accord simply extends this process which used to take place within nation states to single market zones, or currency unions. But does this extension have consequences for the participating states which were not anticipated at the outset, and are these consequences all benign?

In addition, this time round in an important sense something is different since these movements are occurring in the context of a long and difficult economic adjustment, indeed one could almost argue that the people leaving form part of that adjustment. What’s more it is hard to accept that this is the kind of adjustment that countries like Spain and Portugal really need. Renovation in these countries implies these people and their talent are injected into the local economy to dynamise it, and not shot out the side like water from a high pressure hose with holes in it. So the big question I want to ask here is whether the economic programs which are being implemented in these countries take sufficient account of the demographic impacts they are inducing, and of the fact that the population loss involved – which most likely will become permanent – is going to cast a long shadow over the history of the countries concerned. Continue reading

As Good As It Gets In Latvia?

For Maurice Pialat, champion of the marginal centre.

“This raises a final question, which, while not central to the issues of this paper, is nevertheless intriguing: How can a country with a low minimum wage, weak unions, limited unemployment insurance and employment protection, have such a high natural rate [of unemployment]?”

“To summarize, the actual unemployment rate is still probably higher than, but close to the natural rate of unemployment. Latvia may well want to take measures to reduce its natural rate, but the recovery from the slump is largely complete.”
Boom, Bust, Recovery Forensics of the Latvia Crisis, Olivier Blanchard, Mark Griffiths and Bertrand Gruss

With these words three IMF economists (hereafter BGG) effectively signed off on their study of “what just happened on Latvia” and, they hoped, drew to a close a debate which has been going on now for some 6 years. In fact, far from closing the debate, what they may have done is effectively extend it into new terrain, since these apparently harmlesss words – “the recovery from the slump is largely complete” – have far reaching implications, as does the methodology they use for reaching it. These implications reach well beyond Latvia, and even far beyond the Baltics and the CEE in general, despite the conclusion that everyone seems to be reaching that Latvia was just a “one off”. Possibly without intending to do so, they have drawn onto the clinical investigation table issues which have been mounting  up in the theoretical lumber rooms of neoclassical growth theory for some time now, issues which begin to assume a paramount practical importance in the context of our rapidly ageing societies. What, for example, do we understand by the term “convergence” these days? And if “steady state” growth can no longer be understood as implying a constant growth rate (trend growth in developed economies is now systematically falling) should we be considering the possibility that headline GDP growth will at some point turn negative, even if GDP per capita may continue to rise, due to the fact that populations are steadily starting to shrink. And if the answer to the former question is “yes”, then what are the implications of this for the financial system, for the system of saving and borrowing, and for the sustainability of legacy debt? Not little questions these, but ones which will need to find answers and responses in countries like Latvia over the next couple of decades. Continue reading

The Czech Economy That Didn’t Bounce?

The Czech republic has been making the news recently. On the one hand the country has been on the receiving end of massive, devastating floods, while on the other the country’s government was brought to the brink of collapse (and beyond)  by the resignation  of Prime Minister Petr Necas following the arrest of one of his most trusted aides on corruption charges. After the deluge I suppose.

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The Real Experiment That Is Being Carried Out In Japan

The future never resembles the past – as we well know. But, generally speaking, our imagination and our knowledge are too weak to tell us what particular changes to expect. We do not know what the future holds. Nevertheless, as living and moving beings, we are forced to act.John Maynard Keynes

Discussions of the population problem have always had the capacity to stir up public sentiment much more than most other problems.
- Gunnar Myrdal

Last Thursday the yen broke through the psychological threshold of 100 to the US dollar. On Friday the slide continued (see chart), even dropping very close to 102 to the USD at one point before strengthening slightly on the run in to the G7 finance ministers meeting. Continue reading

Does Portugal Have Its Own “Shortage Of Japanese” Problem?

In a number of posts recently I have highlighted the impact of declining workforces on economic growth (here, for example, or here, or here) and the way the policies persued to address the Euro debt crisis are having the impact of  accelerating the movement of young people away from the periphery and towards the core (here, or here) thus accelerating the decline in their working populations and exacerbating their growth problem. This issue has been already highlighted strongly in Japan’s ongoing crisis, and has to some extent come to be known as the “shortage of Japanese” problem following Paul Krugman’s memorable use of this expression to explain  why Japan’s economic performance seemed so poor to so many. Continue reading

The A-b-e Of Economics

And the world said “Let Shinzo Abe be”, and all was light.

A new craze is sweeping the planet. Known by the title “Abenomics” over the last couple of years it has been steadily gathering adepts in financial markets across the globe. Despite the fact Abe’s move fits comfortably within the austerity vs growth policy axis, at the heart of the new approach lies not a strategy to directly create growth per se, but rather one to try to induce inflation. For those who have not been following the Japan saga as it has developed over the last twenty odd years this whole debate may seem like a strange way of thinking about things. After all isn’t inflation supposed to be a bad thing, one central banks are supposed to combat? And how can a country possibly become more ever more competitive by force-feeding itself inflation?

Of course, falling prices are not necessarily in-and-of themselves a bad thing – as any old consumer will tell you – since products get cheaper and cheaper with each passing day. So the run of the mill consumer might find life in Japan quite a pleasing and desirable thing, especially if that particular consumer happens to be retired and living on a fixed income derived from savings as indeed many contemporary Japanese actually are. Falling prices only really become a problem in a more general macroeconomic sense if they lead people to postpone consumption, and if this postponement becomes self-perpetuating in a way which leads prices to continually fall, as the combination of constant productivity increases and stagnant demand serve to produce perpetual oversupply. Falling prices also represent a nasty headache for policymakers since while prices go down the value of accumulated debt doesn’t, and herein lies the rub. So additional “stimulus” which doesn’t lead to increasing nominal GDP simply pushes the sovereign debt even farther along an unsustainable trajectory.

As everyone now recognizes and accepts Japan has a rapidly ageing population and an ageing and contracting workforce. This is the end result of several decades of very low fertility. The number of children in Japan fell to a new low in 2013, while the amount of people over 65 has reached a record high as the population ages and shrinks. This demographic background, which has really been obvious to demographers for years, has only lately come to be regarded as a significant factor in the “Japan problem” by economists. This neglect has most probably been due to the influence of a deep seated predisposition among adherents of neoclassical growth theory to think that population dynamics don’t fundamentally influence economic performance in the long run. For many years the Japan phenomenon was simply seen as a classic example of what Richard Koo terms a “balance sheet recession” wherein the need for the private sector to deleverage from excessive indebtedness leads to a form of structural under-consumption.

Perhaps the most important thing which the whole Abenomics episode has brought to light is the urgent need to bring the existing corpus of economic theory somehow up to date with our modern realities. Despite all the talk of policies for “growth, growth, growth” a simple look at the population outlook in OECD countries and especially the potential work force numbers suggests that, at some point or another, economic growth will turn broadly negative. So the real point is there is an experiment being conducted in Japan, but the experiment isn’t Abenomics (which I suspect won’t work, and could end badly). No, the experiment is about learning to grow old with dignity, not as individuals, but as societies. It is about managing debt in a time of deflation, about giving opportunities to the young, even while the force of the ballot box rides with the old, and about finding ways to ease that rate of work force decline to give some additional room to allow productivity to help, which means both immigration and helping the young – at they are the ones who start families.

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Beyond Their Ken?

Spain’s economic problems now form part of such a complex web of cause and effect, action and reaction, that it is getting increasingly difficult for laymen, journalists and politicians alike to get to the core of what is actually happening.

To a herd of rams, the ram the herdsman drives each evening into a special enclosure to feed and that becomes twice as fat as the others must seem to be a genius. And it must appear an astonishing conjunction of genius with a whole series of extraordinary chances that this ram, who instead of getting into the general fold every evening goes into a special enclosure where there are oats- that this very ram, swelling with fat, is killed for meat”. – Tolstoy, ‘War and Peace’.

After so many false dawns, the recent announcement by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that the government was revising down its 2013 economic forecast hardly caused a blink among a citizenry that is now completely inured to deception and ready to believe the worst about the intentions of any politician willing to come forward with either good or bad news. The long announced recovery has once more been delayed, and will now be noted not in the last three months of this year, but during the first six of 2014. Naturally, a public which is now totally accustomed to such postponements will not be surprised if this one is far from being the last. Continue reading