French Candidates: What is this EU thing anyway?

Why do the leading candidates in the French presidential election seem to have utterly strange European policies?

Take Nicolas Sarkozy. He supposedly believes in “rupture” with old ways and a dash for a new free-market, hard-nosed, toughness cult future. And Euroscepticism is at the heart of this. But at the same time, he has promised to restore le productivisme – that is to say, the maximisation of volume – as the guiding principle of the Common Agricultural Policy.

That’s not free-market, tough, eurosceptic, hard-nosed, liberal, or anything else, except for pure clientele politics. Better yet, it’s the kind of clientele politics that uses other people’s money. Yawn. Not that the peasants’ representatives believes in it – one of them recently said that “there are no cloned Chiracs available”.

Fascinatingly, he’s also now blaming the European Central Bank for its exchange rate policy – as is Ségoléne Royal. Sarko thinks the trouble at Airbus is all down to the bank’s “policy of over-valuation against the dollar.” Sego apparently asked for Angela Merkel to help change the ECB’s charter so that “its sole objective would not be the exchange rate.”

One problem – the exchange rate is not the objective of the ECB. The ECB does not target the exchange rate. This is, of course, all part of the game with the straining “Bretton Woods II” arrangement between the US and China pushing the adjustment burden our way. But – the ECB does not stock and does not sell exchange rate targets.

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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The World As Optimum Currency Area?

I was a little surprised to read in the Christmas edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (not yet online, subscription wall, in German) that Robert Mundell seems to have changed his mind. In his seminal 1961 paper about monetary integration, he famously stated that “the optimum currency area is not the world”. Now it appears he favors a sort-of worldwide currency union, initially comprising Dollar, Euro, and Yen (apparently, he’s also made that point earlier this year in Lib?ration (subscription wall, in French)).
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How Not To Pick The IMF’s Chief

Trying to get away from the emotionally traumatising, this article caught my eye. Clearly it relates to my earlier post, and does have a Spanish connection, if only a rather tangential one.

I thoroughly endorse what the Financial Times has to say. We need multilateralism now more than ever. We should not simply think ‘Europe First’, and:

The IMF needs considerable reform: its voting structure is out of date; its resources are too small; and its ability to lead the global debate on macroeconomic adjustment and exchange rates is too weak.

Here, here. Especially the point about leading the debate on macroeconomic adjustment and exchange rates. If you want to fight terrorism more effectively, perhaps here might be a good place to start.
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It’s expensive, but we’re rich!

Remember this debate about the relative living standards of Sweden and Alabama? One little commented result of the euro, krona and pound?s rise against the US dollar over the last two years is that measured in current exchange rates European countries? income per head now compares rather more favourably against the United States.
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The UK as number one

Since the 1960s Germany has had the largest economy in the EU but Nigel Griffiths, the UK trade minister, thinks all that might change :

“I think that construction and manufacturing alone as sectors could ensure that within 10 years we [the UK] overtake the German economy. We’ve got to see whether we cannot become the third biggest economy in the world* in terms of gross domestic product. I think that is feasible.”

Now before our British readers start singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and waving their Union flags, an important point. He’s talking rubbish.
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Bermuda triangle to swallow EU savings tax directive?

Well, not quite the Bermuda triangle – but the Cayman Islands might do just that.

In what is likely going to become a case study regarding the complexities of European multilevel governance, pooled sovereignty, and the complex relations of institutional Europe and the world, it seems a legal challenge brought forth by the government of the Cayman Islands, a British dependency, and thus an EU associated territory, could at least severely delay the EU savings tax directive‘s implementation – after a mere 13 years of negotiations to come up with a common solution to taxing capital gains without tampering too much with the capital’s mobility and important privacy issues.

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