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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Italy and the Eurozone

John Kay had an article in the Financial Times earlier in the week, and this seems to have caused quite a ripple around the blogsphere (Eurozone Watch, Economonitor, Claus Vistesen at Alpha Sources). The article was about whether or not it was technically possible for Italy to leave the Eurozone. (Update: Sebastian has a fresh post over at Eurozone Watch Blog continuing the discussion).

John Kay’s conclusion, and it is supported by a very reasoned commentary by Sebastien Dullien at Eurozone Watch Blog (welcome Sebastain and Daniela), is that there is no in-principle technical difficulty in exit. The most authoritative piece of work on this topic that I know of comes from Harvard International financial law specialist Hal Scott. The paper was written back in 1998, and was provocatively entitled “When the Euro Falls Apart“. Despite the title the paper is a tightly reasoned piece of work whose main conclusion is that not only is euro-exit technically perfectly feasibe, in fact the mechanisms which would make this possible were incorporated from the start (in particular keeping independent central banks with their own reserves). I think those who were able to think clearly back then – and were able to use some emotional intelligence – were always aware that there were question marks over Italy’s ability to go the distance.

So the problem is not a technical one. But as John Kay indicates it *is* a political one:
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Eurozone Watch Blog

Well I have just noticed a new new Eurozone blog: Daniela Schwarzer and Sebastian Dullien who have been blogging at Eurozone Watch Blog for a few months now. Daniela has a post today about Mr Euro, Jean-Claude Juncker. But see this George Parker piece in the FT:

Jean-Claude Trichet, European Central Bank president, on Friday delivered a stiff warning to eurozone finance ministers to back off in an escalating dispute over the bank’s independence.

Mr Trichet pointed out that it was his signature on euro banknotes and that it was unlawful under the EU treaty for finance ministers to give instructions or try to influence the bank.

His comments came at a strained news conference in Helsinki with Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg prime minister, who was on Friday given a second two-year term as political head of the eurozone.

Mr Juncker said he had only agreed to carry on chairing the eurogroup – the political arm of the single currency – after finance ministers supported his plan to have an “intensified dialogue” with the ECB.

As I say in a comment on Daniela’s post. This is about the only topic I am currently in agreement with Trichet on: I simply don’t see what he and Trichet have to talk about.

Meantime over on Afoe Mark Thoma had a very interesting guest post last week on whether the eurozone will be affected by any possible downturn in the US, and this post has been picked up by both New Economist and Claus Vistesen at Alpha Sources.

Saving The Euro

Do you want to save the Euro? Well one idea for how to do it has been proposed by University of Missouri-St Louis history professor John Gillingham: reissuing the 12 national currencies that were replaced with just one, while at the same time retaining the euro as a parallel currency that finds its market value in competition to reissued national currencies (podcast here).
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More Pressure on the Yield Curve

One of the things about targeting expectations, and factoring-in changes, is that the world moves on at a very rapid clip these days. So the ECB rate rise in now, really, yesterday’s news. The big issue today is the fact that the easing cycle in the eurozone may already be over (we need to see the data going forward before we can be sure about anything here). Anyway, one thing the markets are sure about is that eurozone interest rates aren’t going anywhere very significant in the near future, and one of the consequences of this is the fact that 10 year German bund yields are on their way down again, as is the euro. (On this I continue to maintain my long held view that the situation is asymmetric: good news from the US, and bad news from the eurozone will send the dollar up, while the opposite will simply see exchange rates marking time. All of this has a floor, of course, somewhere, but I think we are still some distance from touching it). Of course all of this implies that the dangers of yield curve inversion in the US are now real and ever-present.

European bonds may gain for a second week, their first back-to-back set of increases in more than three months, on speculation any interest-rate increases from the European Central Bank will be limited.

The ECB raised its benchmark rate to 2.25 percent yesterday, the first time it has lifted borrowing costs in five years. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet said the increase left rates in line with the bank’s goal of containing inflation, sending bond yields to a one-month low.

“There will be no additional rate hike immediately after this one, and the cycle will end at a relatively low level,” said Kornelius Purps, a fixed-income strategist at HVB Group in Munich. “That should be supportive for the bond market.” Economists at HVB forecast one more rate increase of a quarter percentage point next year.

The dollar rose for a second day against the euro on speculation a government report will show the U.S. economy added the most jobs in four months in November.

The U.S. currency also headed for a third week of gains versus the yen on speculation faster growth in the world’s largest economy will prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster central banks than in Japan and Europe.

“There are no signs that the economy is slowing down,” said Niels Christensen, a currency strategist at Societe Generale SA in Paris. “Rate expectations in Europe and Japan are no match for the Fed, and so the dollar will keep rising.”

The Most Bizarre Monetary Policy DecisionOf Recent Times?

This was Wolfgang Munchau writing in the Financial Times a week ago:

The pre-announced interest rate rise that the European Central Bank is due to agree this Thursday must rank as one of the most bizarre monetary policy decisions of recent times. The economic recovery in the eurozone remains fragile, as last week’s German confidence indicators have shown. Even the ECB’s own forecast for headline inflation is relatively optimistic, while core inflation remained unchanged at 1.5 per cent in October.”

and he issued a warning:

“It is still not too late to propose ECB reform as part of the next treaty revision. For as long as EU leaders maintain the status quo, they have the central bank they deserve.

Central bank independence seems to be once more ‘a l’ordre du jour’, and the ECB may well live to find to its cost that there is one thing worse than actually playing the game, it’s playing the game and losing. Now why?
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More Growth In The Eurozone

I think I’d better rephrase that: more overall growth, but a very mixed bag. In deriving aggregate numbers for the zone, four big economies really matter: Spain, France, Germany and Italy. Now each of these economies actually has different characteristics, so it is not clear what ‘the general picture’ means here.

Spain is the European economy whose current growth characteristic seem to resemble most those of the USA: above average growth (around 3.5% per annum), high dependency on housing and construction for the ‘extra growth’, high and rapidly growing private indebtedness (around 20% y-o-y) and a large current account deficit. Where Spain doesn’t resemble the US is in productivity, which has been more or less negative in recent years.

France is , as I’ve been suggesting, relatively ebullient despite the lack of all those labour reforms, and seems to be ‘on a roll’ at the moment. Driven by internal consumer demand and exports France managed an annualised 2.8% in the third quarter. Ironically, possibly France represents the big-four Eurozone economy with the most sustainable and balanced growth trajectory right now.

The German economy is growing at an unexpectedly high rate, but this extra-spurt is virtually all explained by the rapid increase in exports (helped of course by the fall in the euro).Investment, fuelled by the demand for all those exports, was also up. Meanhwile internal consumer demand is possibly even falling. (Growth in the third quarter was at an annual rate of 2.4% up from an annualised 0.8% in the second quarter).

And Italy, which as I keep mentioning is definitely now the ‘poor sister’ of the eurozone, with an identity crisis about what kind of economy it actually is, and a rapidly ageing population producing huge fiscal pressure. (On this see Morgan Stanley’s Vicenzo Guzzo yesterday). Italian growth actually bucked the trend in the third quarter and was lower than in the second quarter (dropping from a 2.8% annual rate to a 1.2% one).

All of this leaves me with the feeling: ‘Eurozone’ which eurozone?

Promises, Promises, But More Than A Technical Detail

Well the eurozone government deficit problem has hit the agenda with a thud again in the last few days. Yesterday the FT ran a story about how the ECB has decided that it will not accept government paper (bonds) in the future from any country which has not maintained at least an A- rating from one or more of the principal debt assesment agencies. (Dave Altig at MacroBlog has also covered the story here, and Nouriel Roubini here). Today the FT has another story about how Trichet has confirmed the policy, and how the Commission too plans to get tough (well they would, wouldn’t they, since this may now become a credibility auction).

This topic must appear appaulingly technical and yawn-provoking to the non-economist. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Let me explain a bit.
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Eurozone More Exposed?

Chief OECD economist Jean Philippe Cotis wasn’t only proferring recommendations to the Federal reserve yesterday. He was also not backward in coming forward with his opinions about future growth in the eurozone. Even if Cotis isn’t exactly my favourite economist I feel here he may be a little nearer the truth.

The occasion for M. Cotis’ observations was the official press briefing for an interim OECD assessment of the economic situation in Europe, the United States and Japan.
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