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
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
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
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.
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
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
Against a backdrop which offers an eerie parallel with events which took place somewhat to the North more than 30 years ago, Catalonia is now threatening to separate from Spain. In so doing the region seems to be putting at risk both the future of the host country and beyond that the outlook for the Euro currency and the process of European unification. Continue reading
The recent IMF proposals to help stimulate growth and job creation in Spain at least deserve serious consideration.
In a blog post which sought to defend the recent IMF proposal to for a social compact involving a 10% reduction in Spanish wages and salaries, the EU Economy and Finance Commissioner Olli Rehn cited a line from Bob Dylan – “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is”. Continue reading
What follows is an interview I did over the summer with the Madrid based publication The Local.
Let’s start with the basics: what are Spain’s current economic problems?
Spain’s economic problems are a knock-on effect of the end of Spain’s property boom. The collapse of the property market led to a drop in incomes, depressed demand for goods and — slightly — lower wages.
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.