A (positive) German shock?

Eurozone Watch has two articles about Germany and Italy that offer support for an optimistic view of the European economy. For a start, Sebastian Dullein argues that a comparison of Germany today and the US after the early 90s recession shows that Germany might be on the brink of a productivity surge. Dullein argues that labour productivity growth at the moment is being depressed by the re-absorption of the long-term unemployed, which also happened in the US in the early 90s. He quotes a figure of 7.6 per cent for productivity change (per employee, rather than per hour worked) in the metalworking industries (in Germany, a term that covers most of the industrial sector), which is positively stellar – after all, the US didn’t pass 2 per cent per-hour until 1998, well into the boom.

He also criticises Wolfgang Munchau for arguing (in essence) that there had been no structural reforms that accounted for productivity growth, and therefore that there was no growth. At this, I think I heard J.K. Galbraith’s ghost chuckle into his martini – it is indeed a fine example of all that is wrong with economics as a discipline that one can argue that we must all reform because there is a crisis, the evidence of that crisis being that one’s reforms have not been adopted.

An alternative argument would be that there was not all that much wrong with German firms in the first place. It is suggested that R&D spending is too low, but Dullein argues that it’s picking up. And anyway, their products can’t be that bad, as the rest of the world wants to buy German exports more than anything else. He also notes that there has been a wave of capital investment since 2002.

This possible German shock is already reverberating interestingly. Italy, for example, is experiencing better economic times, with growth picking up and strong industrial order books – especially on orders from France and Germany for capital goods. The growth is despite an increase in the tax take, with the result that the government is likely to have a chunk of change on hand. The OECD and the EU Commission would rather like to see that used to cut the monster public debt, still running at over 100 per cent of GDP. But the political situation might make that unlikely.

That might be the good news, though. When wasn’t the Italian government up to its eyes in debt? And it’s almost traditional that political turmoil in Italy is accompanied by good economic news. The difficult bit, though, is that Italian inflation is running somewhat slower than German – this implies, of course, an improvement in the terms-of-trade. Probably, Italy has done some internal disinflation, being unable to devalue – but this implies that wages have suffered relatively. The question is how to redistribute the benefit of the German shock without killing the golden goose.

The Latvian Economy

Something is afoot in Latvia. According to the latest Eurostat data on annual wage costs, in the first quarter of 2007 wages in Latvia were up by an astonishing 32.7% when compared with the first quarter of 2006 (for a simple graph of the course of Latvian wages since 2001 try this) . Without knowing anything more about Latvia it is obvious that something important is happening here, and that the situation as it stands is clearly unsustainable.

And it isn’t only wages that seem to be spiraling out of control. Consumer price inflation has been steadily increasing, and now runs at an annual rate of around 9% (graph here), while the current account deficit (currently around 25% of GDP, chart here, graph here, also see the chart comparing Latvia with the other EU8 countries here) has also shot up, while domestic consumption is rocketing, fueled by an inward flow of bank funds and remittances (see table) and this rapid growth in domestic consumption is producing an upward spiral in house prices (see graph) – Latvia (Riga) was number one in the most recent Knight Frank global housing index at a staggering annual increase rate of 62.1% – and this spiral may well constitute a bubble.

Worse, there is some sort of consensus among experts and analysts that there may be no easy policy remedy available, that the problem may be structural, and guess what, despite all the protests from the Economist that demographic changes don’t have important visible economic impacts, the key to the Latvian problem is a demographic one: essentially they are running out of people. Running out of people that is if they wish to sustain their current high levels of economic growth and experience “catch up” growth to bring their living standards alongside those of their Western European EU neighbours. A simple example should suffice: during 2006 Latvian employment was increasing at an annual rate of around 70,000, but if we look for a moment at live births – see chart - we will see that since the early 1990s Latvia has been producing children at an annual rate of under 40,000 and that by 2006 this number is down to 21,000.

What follows below the fold are a series of observations and policy proposals which are based on a much more extensive economic analysis I carried out for Global Economy Matters, which can be found here.

Meantime Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis seems to have come up with his own solution:

Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis, speaking in a radio interview over the weekend, appealed to Latvians to do their part in bringing down inflation and stop spending so much money. Kalvitis asked Latvians to be more thoughtful about borrowing money to buy big-ticket items, warning them that the future generation may be forced to foot the bill. Continue reading

Inverse Nixon Theory

It’s been said in the past – indeed, it used to be conventional wisdom – that unlikely right-wing governments were more likely to make peace, because they enjoyed credibility and a tough reputation. More obviously, conservatives long enjoyed a reputation for “fiscal credibility”, which supposedly helped them to control inflation by giving the impression that they would either be willing to sit on the money supply, or trade-off unemployment for inflation along the Phillips curve.

Curiously, with what is commonly taken to be a swing to the Right in Germany and France, we’re seeing the opposite. One of Angela Merkel’s first acts on taking office was to announce a future rise in consumption taxes, which isn’t very much different in terms of public perception to cutting them in the meantime. Nicolas Sarkozy has since announced that he’s going to have a pause in the reduction of the national debt – read, reflate the economy somewhat. Specifically, as he’s promised to hand out a €20 billion “fiscal shock”. But nobody appears to be very worried. It’s a big contrast to five minutes ago, when modalities of the Eurosystem’s breakdown were a regular topic on AFOE..

Compare the keenness of the Schröder, Jospin, and de Villepin governments to stick to the script of the Stability Pact, come what may. (No, de Villepin wasn’t a social democrat, but Sarko certainly campaigned as if he had been.) There’s a non-trivial argument that the pact was a serious economic mistake. It would certainly be interesting if it only survived because the Left was paranoid about seeming over lefty, and especially if the continental economy’s uptick had something to do with the Right being able to let it ride.

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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A curious trend in the Balkans

2000-2004: Under the rule of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, Romania enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Romania’s GDP increases by an average of nearly 6% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Romania joins NATO and is accepted for EU accession in 2007.

December 2004: voters reject Nastase and PSD, voting in the opposition in a weak coalition government.

2001-2005: Under the rule of the National Movement Simeon II (NDST) and Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburgotski, Bulgaria enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Bulgaria’s GDP increases by an average of around 5% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Bulgaria joins NATO and is accepted for EU accession in 2007.

June 2005: Voters reject Saxecoburgotski and NDST, voting in the opposition, which now appears likely to form a weak coalition government.

2001-2005: Under the rule of the Socialist Party and Prime Minister Fatos Nano, Albania enjoys four consecutive years of rapid economic growth. Albania’s GDP increases by an average of about 6% per year; for the first time since the end of Communism, the country has four years without a recession. Meanwhile, Albania is accepted into the Partnership for Peace and moves from being an impoverished semi-pariah to a serious candidate for EU accession sometime in the next decade.

July 2005: Voters reject Nano and the Socialists, returning to former President Sali Berisha, out of office since 1997. Berisha will form a coalition government with several minor parties.

What’s going on here?
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Europe’s ‘Tiger’

Last Friday Eurostat released the 2004 data on comparative per capita PPP’s (purchasing power parities) across the EU. Perhaps the most surprising fact which emerges is that Ireland is now in second place (after Luzembourg) with a PPP 40% above the EU average. For a country that not so long ago was considered one of the ‘poorer’ EU members this is truly stunning.

It is generally well known that Ireland had (and continues to have) one of the highest fertility and population growth rates in the EU, but this has not been regarded as especially important since conventional neo-clasical growth theory (and the new ‘super-duper’endogenous growth theory for that matter) argue that increased population means a bigger economy, but not necessarily an increase in per capita income. However, as I said yesterday, it’s all about population structure. What we are now understanding is that the right age structure can produce very rapid increases in per capita income, and Ireland is, of course, a good case in point.

In the case of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, New Economic Paradigm theorists David Bloom and David Canning, who have made a specific study of the Irish case, reached the following conclusions:
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Book Review: “European Integration 1950-2003: Superstate or New Market Economy?”

Once upon a time, there was a large, intellectually hegemonic, somewhat totalising ideology rooted in a heterodox school of economics. Its advocates proposed to make massive changes to the structure of society and claimed that only such a revolutionary realignment could alleviate the contradictions and failures of the existing order and save the world from stagnation and misery. They claimed that their programme would produce immediate results, and that the only reason it wasn’t immediately implemented was because entrenched interests were manipulating the public against them.

Ultimately, advocates of these principles did gain power in many places and were able to implement elements of their programme. Some came to power through revolutions of various kinds that granted them the near-dictatorial powers they needed to make the changes they believed necessary. Others were able to convince electorates and even elites that theirs was the way of the future. They turned public dissatisfaction to their advantage, especially during economic downturns when people were willing to turn to new solutions and elites feared that the masses would turn against them.

And, they had some arguable successes, but no unambiguous ones. In some places, particularly those where effectively unlimited power had shifted to them, they often maintained highly inequitable regimes which grew harder and harder to justify, faced ever growing public disaffection, and turned to more oppressive and manipulative means to sustain control. This undermined their movement, but despite the best efforts of their enemies was not quite able to kill it off.

In states where more democratic methods had been used, the need to compromise with established interests and to sustain public consent forced them to accept measures often contrary to their initial programme. Their ideological identity tended to shift over time as winning elections grew more important than ideological purity and as the drawbacks of real power became apparent. Actually being held responsible for results forced many members of this tradition to accept their enemies’ interests as at least partially legitimate, and compelled them to less radical legislative programmes.

In some of those nations, these radical parties became increasingly manipulative and difficult to distinguish from their former enemies. But, in a few places, the necessary dilution of their programme brought about an ideological synthesis that appeared successful, and this success in turn showed that the radical programmes they had once advocated were perhaps unnecessary. In the end, ideology had no real hold on them, and the models and methods that seemed to work became the political and economic programme that they were identified with. Their former allies who operated more dictatorial regimes were easily repudiated.

But others were unable to accept that option. They included dissidents who had been burned by the growing authoritarianism of their own failed revolutions, or who were simply unable to accept that their early ideological purity had become superfluous. They were isolated and powerless, only able to function in the states where their former allies had become moderates, leaving them without meaningful public support. They fumed at the world’s unwillingness to go the way they wanted, and increasingly recast the history of the world in terms of their own ideological predispositions. The past became, in their minds, an unending conflict between an ideologically pure vanguard and scheming established interests, a story of their courageous champions betrayed by back-sliding traitors. Ultimately, the world moved on and these radicals virtually disappeared outside of intellectually protected milieux like privately-funded think tanks and universities.

Of course, by the now the astute reader will have recognised that I am talking about the history of neoliberalism.
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