Spain and the IMF: Round the Bend or Out of the Woods?

“Spain has turned the corner”. With this stark statement the IMF opened it’s annual Article IV consultation report for 2014. Naturally the statement rankled, with this author among others, because at first sight it seems to be saying something which on closer reading of the report you find it isn’t. At best it’s misleading, possibly from a PR point of view intentionally so, but then Article IV reports are supposed to be more sober, measured assessments. One Spanish journalist summed up the surprise many felt in the following tweet.

Dear IMF,
You can’t say “Spain has turned the corner” and “the unemployment remains unacceptably high” in the same paper
It’s silly
Yours,
C

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Will Japan Re-enter Deflation in April 2015?

Reading the most recent statements from Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda or Finance Minister Taro Aso you would get the impression that the days of deflation are now well and truly numbered in Japan. Martin Schulz, economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, goes even further. “Deflation is over in Japan,” he told Bloomberg Television First Up’s Angie Lau . Even Japan’s industrial leaders now believe inflation is here to stay: the country’s inflation rate will be 1.5 percent in the spring of 2015, and 1.7 percent in 2017, according to average forecasts in a Bank of Japan survey conducted in March this year. Continue reading

The “Hot Labour” Phenomenon

Strong growth. Rising real estate prices. Rapid job creation. Surging immigration. This list sums up the Switzerland of 2014 down to a tee. However, it also sounds like a description of what things were like in Spain in 2007 – shortly before the country’s economy fell off a cliff. What follows is a conversation between financial journalist Detlef Gürtler and economist and crisis expert Edward Hugh about possible parallels and differences between the two booms, and the role of a new phenomenon which Hugh describes as “Hot Labour“.

Hugh argues that this is a new phenomenon, and on the increase as a result of central bank bubble inducing activity. While immigration is a vital tool aiding economies to manage the population ageing process, it is important that economic activities be balanced. Immigration fueling boom/bust cycles is far from innocuous, and harm a country just as much as a sudden stop in capital flows if the immigration is followed by emigration.   
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Greek Re-entry (or Grentry) Not The Game Changer Many Think It Is

There is no doubt that Greece’s recent bond sale was an exciting and even invigorating moment for many people. The WSJ’s Simon Nixon, for example, called it “a symbolically important moment for the euro crisis”. Reuters’ Marius Zaharia suggested the speed of the come back could even be a game-changer for the heavily indebted southern European country. Certainly there can be little doubt that, as Nixon puts it, the turn round in market fortunes was a remarkable achievement, illustrative of just “how far market sentiment toward Southern Europe has changed”. 
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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

Firmly Anchored Expectations, No Postponement of Purchases?

This article from former European Central Bank board member Jürgen Stark (Doomsayers risk a self-fulfilling prophecy) has been occasioning a lot of commentary over the last week or so. According to Stark, the current deflation debate “lacks three important points: an in-depth analysis of the forces driving inflation down; a clear distinction between “benign disinflation” and “bad deflation”, with a spiral of decreasing prices, wages and output triggered by negative expectations; and a better understanding of the European Central Bank’s approach”. 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

A Simple Chart Illustrating Why Japan Style Deflation Is Now More Or Less Inevitable In Spain

Here’s one simple chart which illustrates why I think Japan style deflation is now more or less inevitable in Spain. Curiously it comes from the Ministry of Employment and illustrates the relation between the movement in average wages caused by actual movements in the real wage and those caused by what is known as the “compositional effect”. This latter is known by this name because it is the result of movements in the composition of the workforce, whether this be in terms of the average skill level or the average level of experience (or seniority premium, if you prefer). Seniority has historically played a very important part in the Spanish wage structure – ie the longer you have worked the more you are likely to earn.

Now if you look at the data superficially, you find that in the first years of the crisis average real salaries went up sharply (the blue line). This surge in average salaries was not due to salaries actually rising to this extent, rather it was the result of the composition of the workforce having changed (the average skill level went up) as unskilled workers in construction lost their jobs. Hence the 2009 spike in the composition effect.

According to Bank of Spain data in 2008 skilled workers represented 23.55% of the total while by 2012 the proportion had risen to 28.2%. On the other hand, over the same time period unskilled workers fell from 14.8% to 10.2% of the total.This naturally had an impact on average wage levels.

Now, however, the labour market has stabilised, and unskilled workers are no longer losing their jobs (at least not in net terms). According to the Spanish newspaper Expansion the Spanish statistics office estimate average hourly labour costs (not unit labour costs, note) fell in Spain by 2.9% en 2012, 1.9% in 2013 and they are expected to fall another 1.7% this year.

Again, looking at the chart you can see that the green (compositional effect) line which surged in 2009 has now flattened.  It has flattened but the impact is still there and has stabilised at a more or less constant rate. Subsequently it is quite possible that the compositional effect will even turn negative due to the impact of the 2012 labour market reform:  average salaries are no longer falling due to labour shedding producing a changing skill composition but due to AGE CHURN. Older workers with long term contracts and lots of seniority are being steadily replaced by younger ones on less well paid contracts, thus dragging down the average wage. The line is flat and extends out in to the future. This can go on for years now, and indeed the compositional effect can even turn negative.This is exactly what has been happening over the years in Japan, and is the principal reason why Abenomics isn’t working.

Incidentally, here I have been talking about average hourly labour costs NOT  those famous unit labour costs. These, as we all know, fell significantly in Spain after the onset of the crisis. What isn’t so well understood is that this fall wasn’t due to falling hourly wage costs (these didn’t really start falling till mid 2010, see blue line in chart) but due to massive labour shedding. Spain’s GDP has fallen by something like 7% while employment is down by around 20%.

On the surface this shows a large gain in productivity. Where this gain is actually coming from hasn’t been sufficiently analysed yet, but part surely comes from a compositional shift in the labour force. One thing is, however, reasonably clear and that is that it hasn’t come from industrial productivity, since industrial output is down by some 30% since the pre-crisis peak, even more than the reduction in employment.(I’m afraid you’ll have to stare very hard at the industrial output chart if you want to see signs of the much proclaimed recovery – you’ll have to stare very hard since there is so little sign of it).

So why do I think this suggests deflation may become endemic in Spain? Well, with average real wages falling, real pensions falling, and credit still shrinking by around 6% a year it is hard to see where the demand is going to come from, especially with very little happening in the way of new employment – the shortfall is becoming structurally implanted.

For more argument on all this (in Spanish) see my book which is being published by Ediciones Deusto next week. You can find a list of chapter headings here.