Italy’s Economic Problems Under The Spotlight

As Manuel points out in the accompanying post, Romano Prodi’s resignation as Italy’s Prime Minister is a rather sudden and dramatic, but scarcely unexpected, development. The immediate political crisis may be resolved as rapidly as it appeared, but again as Manuel indicates it may only serve as a prelude for further things to come, and the fragility of any government coalition which may be put together only underlines the difficulties Italy will almost certainly have in addressing what are important ongoing economic problems. The present post will simply attempt to outline some of the main economic problems Italy faces, in order to contextualize the political problem a little.
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The Economics of the German VAT Hike

I am very happy to be back here at AFOE, if not only, for a brief one-stop guest post about the economics of the German VAT hike and more specifically how market commentators and analists might just be reading the German economy somewhat falsely at the moment in the sense that they are not taking into account the implications of the sustained and evolving process of ageing in the German society. Indeed as Edward noted just a few days ago here at AFOE we might actually be talking about a clash of paradigms or at least a clash between two ways of looking at and interpreting the economic data coming out of Germany and indeed of the entire Eurozone. There are consequently many venues on which this diagreement is fielded and an important one of these is the German economy and more specifically the significance of the VAT hike and below the fold I will give my view on this topic.
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Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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European Energy Efficiency Plan

Sargasso, Dutch weblog and co-nominee in the recent BOB’s has a very interesting post on European energy policy, which prompted me to address the issue here as well. The point of my own post here on AFOE is not to elaborate extensively on European energy policy, I simply do not have the time right now, but simply to draw your attention to the fact that there is a European policy, the Energy Efficiency Action Plan, not to be confused with its US namesake (pdf), and to start a discussion.

The ambitious aim of the European EEAP is to have a 20% reduction in wasteful energy consumption by 2020. From the official press release:

“Europeans need to save energy. Europe wastes at least 20% of the energy it uses. By saving energy, Europe will help address climate change, as well as its rising consumption, and its dependence on fossil fuels imported from outside the Union’s borders.” said Energy Commissioner Piebalgs. “Energy efficiency is crucial for Europe: If we take action now, the direct cost of our energy consumption could be reduced by more than €100 billion annually by 2020; around 780 millions tonnes of CO2 will also be avoided yearly” he pointed out.

In another press-release on the same subject we can read the following:

At the same time saving energy is the easiest, most rapid and most effective way to answer the challenge of our energy dependence and reduce damage to the environment.

So, the objectives are clear: save money, help the environment and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel imports. How? The EEAP outlines these focal points (I have added a few informational links here and there):

1) Promote energy-efficient household appliances through labelling and performance requirements
2) Promote low-energy housing (pdf)
3) Render power generation and distribution more efficient
4) Further reduce CO2 emissions from cars
5) Facilitate financing of energy efficiency investments for enterprises
6) Stimulate energy efficiency in the new member states
7) Use tax tools in a carrot-and-stick fashion
8) Raise awareness and share information, both within the EU and worldwide

The big problem, as always, is mentioned at the end of the proposed plan:

Nonetheless, before any of these objectives can be achieved, political will and engagement at national, regional and local level are necessary. The European Council, European Parliament, as well as national and regional policy makers will need to renew their full commitment and establish a clear and unambiguous mandate to facilitate the implementation of the Action Plan by endorsing it and agreeing on the proposals set forth.

Nevertheless, I’d like to take a positive approach and welcome the proposed policy set forth by the European Commission while awaiting new developments in the area of alternative energy as well.

For those who are interested, please go and read the details of the EEAP in full and share your thoughts and insights with us.

Hungary: Well That Didn’t Take Long!

It was only just over two weeks ago (two weeks, which following the logic of a historical time which seems far from uniform, now seem like half a lifetime) that guest poster P. O’Neill, said this:

For understandable reasons — the addition of 10, and soon to be 12, new member countries, and the constitutional crisis, the European Union has been preoccupied with foundational questions in recent years. But an older concern is working its way back onto the agenda: how to handle an economic crisis in a member country……However, the risk of the latter type of crisis in a member country is now quite high.

The warning lights are flashing again – this time in eastern Europe, and especially in the recent or imminent member countries of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Poland is also a source of concern. Some combination of profligate governments, political uncertainty, EU spending booms, and capital inflows have created precarious economic positions for these countries.

Well, well, well, scarcely three weeks later, and here it is, all on the table. Sometimes, in the field of interest of what is sometimes erroneously termed the dismal science, things do indeed move quickly.
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Consumption in Germany

In comments here, Edward has addressed a question I was also thinking about this morning. He writes, “So the new coalition’s ‘play’ will be to try and really push-start domestic consumption in 2006. Obviously they hope some consumption will be brought forward in order to avoid the tax.”

Tax and a positive contribution from the ECB are important, of course, but I wonder if there aren’t other hindrances to domestic consumption. I’d be hard pressed to think of an upswing in the German economy that wasn’t led by exports and fed by investment. Domestic consumption brings up the rear.

Add to that strong admonitions in the culture that consumption is bad. Look at any apartment building and count the number of “No ads please” stickers on mail slots. Add in the Öko (“ecological”) position that the best contribution to the environment is to consume as little as possible. Add deep cultural mistrust of credit. Add some of the demographic trends that Edward has written about in detail. All of these suggest that there are barriers to a recovery sustained by domestic demand that go beyond fear of the taxman.

Or I could be wrong. Americans, after all, have famously overthrown their Puritan heritage and consume enough to keep the world economy afloat. The hard-core economists could be right, and culture might play no role at all in household decisions. I honestly don’t know what to think about German consumption. Further thoughts, anyone?

Sobering News

First off, Dave at MacroBlog has a good summary of the core of the economic policy programme adopted by the new German government. He also has some to-the-point comments about ECB credibility issues

But the big news today must surely be the surprising state of the European consumer . Perhaps the most indicative reading on the situation comes from a report from business consultants Deloitte which states that spending on xmas gifts is expected to fall this year by an average 3 per cent (year-on-year) across nine European countries. Revealingly they find that 49 per cent of Europeans believe their economies are currently in recession.

Now that German domestic consumption is declining comes as no surprise. Economic theory offers us sound explanations as to why this might be the case, nonetheless the pace at which this decline is progressing is pretty striking:

Third quarter growth figures for Europe’s largest economy released yesterday showed that after five years of stagnation, Germany’s economy is locked in a schizophrenic phase. On the one hand the country’s robust exports, which rose 4.7 per cent from the second quarter, are finally translating into stronger investments, up 2.2 per cent.

But consumption, an essential ingredient of a healthy recovery, fell for the third consecutive quarter, pressed by high unemployment, stagnating disposable income and a broader crisis of confidence.

Hanging as a twin threat over this one-legged recovery are the prospect of an imminent rise in eurozone interest rates and Ms Merkel’s pledge to cut spending and raise taxes to restore the country’s public finances by 2007.

However, the recent news from France does come as a surprise. Economic data from France had been rather more encouraging lately, and thus the fact that French consumer spending on manufactured goods declined for a second successive month in October – down by 0.6 percent from September, when it fell a revised 0.3 percent – does come as something of a surprise, and is probably like a bucket of icy water over in Brussels and Paris, and, possibly more importantly, over at the ECB in Frankfurt.

It was only last Monday that Morgan Stanley economist Eric Chaney was taking IMF chief Rodigo Rato to taskfor the latter’s argument that “it would be good to see more internally driven recovery” before starting to normalise interest rates. Chaney took the opportunity to make a full-frontal-assault on what he calls “the legend that only exports explain euro area growth”.

Since 2003, the contribution to growth of external trade has been constantly negative or null for the euro area, while almost constantly positive for Germany. The French GDP data out on November 18 are confirming this once again: French final domestic demand was up 0.9% in Q3 (3.5% SAAR), driven by strong consumption (0.7%Q despite a sharp drop in food consumption) and even stronger corporate capital spending (1.1%Q).

Now normally I would be agreeing with him, since as he says the ‘legend’ is derived from the fact that many analysts take Germany as a proxy for the euro area, and this can be deeply misleading. But this latest round of data counsel caution (and maybe some of that caution could have been reflected in Jean-Claude Trichet’s performance last Friday, at least if the Central banker’s job is to stay ahead of the curve it could have been). Lesson: don’t make yourself a hostage to fortune if you don’t want to end up being hoisted on your own pettard. (And Btw: Touché Señor Rato).

ECB Interest Rate Policy

Brad Setser has a post today on Kate Moss, not provoked by her evidently economically intriguing modelling properties, but due to the Kate-Moss-thin credit-spreads which Bloomberg’s William Pesek refers to in this article. What really turns Pesek on it turns out isn’t Kate Moss at all but the possible existence of links between China’s economic boom and the recent surge in popularity for credit derivatives.

And it is in the context of this evolutionary chain that Brad Setser’s work on China and Systematic Risk offers itself as some kind of missing link.
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Alcohol Consumption Pro-Cyclical?

Thanks mainly to indirect encouragement from commenter Teme, I am continuing to plough the Finland furrow. Today I found this very interesting piece of research:


This paper explores the connection between alcohol mortality, drinking behaviour and macroeconomic fluctuations in Finland by using both aggregate and micro-level data during the past few decades. The results from the aggregate data reveal that an improvement in regional economic conditions measured by the employment-to-population rate produces a decrease in alcohol mortality. However, the great slump of the early 1990s is an exception to this pattern. During that particular episode, alcohol mortality did indeed decline, as there was an unprecedented collapse in economic activity.
The results from the micro-data show that an increase in the employment-to-population rate and expansion in regional GDP produces an increase in alcohol consumption while having no effect on the probability of being a drinker. All in all, the Finnish evidence presented does not overwhelmingly support the conclusions reported for the USA, according to which temporary economic slowdowns are good for health. In contrast, at least alcohol mortality seems to increase in those bad times that are not exceptional economic crises like the one experienced in the early 1990s. However, there is evidence that alcohol consumption is strongly procyclical by its nature. This suggests that alcohol consumption and mortality may be delinked in the short-run business cycle context.

KEY WORDS: alcohol mortality, drinking, business cycles

On Un-Common Ground

Now just remember, you read about it first on Afoe. Bertrand Benoit and David Pilling have an excellent article in the FT today:

Question: Which of the world’s biggest economies is holding an early election this month dominated by debate over radical economic reforms?

Two clues: The economy, long in the doldrums, is showing signs of life, thanks to improving exports and a restructured private sector. An ageing population is making structural reform an urgent priority.

The answer: Not one, but two countries – Japan and Germany.

Just my point in my earlier post, and the more this connection is recognised the sooner we’ll enter the zone of framing meaningful solutions. As the FT writers suggest, there are many intriguing parallels between next Sunday’s Japanese election and the German ballot one week later.
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