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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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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Oooops It Isn’t Baaack….

Morgan Stanley team members Steven Jen and Eric Chaney (joined by Takehiro Sato and David Miles) debate today the interesting question of whether the eurozone economies have entered a liquidity trap (LT). Those who have no idea what one of these would look like could do worse than read Paul Krugman’s classic article on the topic: It’s baaack! Japan’s Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap (pdf).

So what is all the fuss about?
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Changing Perspectives On Immigration.

Views of immigration are changing. Back in the mists of time, when I first came to the conclusion that ongoing demographic changes were going to be important, the voices in favour of a reconsideration of immigration policy were few and far between. Perhaps the first and most notable of these voices was the UN population division. Now things are different, and a series of recent international conferences and reports highlighting the positive advantages of immigration as an economic motor only serve to underline the fact that discussion of this important topic is very much back on the agenda.
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ECB: Plus ?a Change?

The ECB met earlier today to conduct the monthly review of interest rate policy. It came as a surprise to noone that the outcome was to leave everything just as it is. Surprisingly though the decision this month is surrounded by a little more controversy than has been the case of late since Italy’s Berlusconi and economic opinion in Germany have been suggesting that some reduction of rates might be no bad thing, whilst Spain’s economy minister (and former EU commisioner) Pedro Solbes is reported to have been pushing for an increase. Why the difference?
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What’s It All About Alfie?

Well I suppose it’s better to end the week on a bang rather than a whimper, so here I go with another of those posts. What really ended the week on a high note (or should I say a low one) was the US labour market. And since I am arguing that the euro-dollar parity is being driven at the moment by US labour market data, this news can only mean one thing: more upward pressure on the euro. Which makes me only want to re-iterate, and even more strongly, that an important opportunity was wasted yesterday to take some remedial action by lowering the interest rate. Remedial action which would also have supplied a much needed lifeline to Germany’s beleagured economy. But this, like so many things, was not to be.
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Europe as an economic irrelevancy

By 2050 Western Europe could be an economic irrelevancy, with its four leading economies, the UK, Germany, France and Italy (note the order?) enjoying a combined output of less than half India?s and a third of China?s. Both Brazil and Russia will be twice as large as any single Western European economy.
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