Economic nonsense about France

Yet again. Here’s what the BBC has to say in its updated-for-the-upcoming-elections online background article about France:

But France’s economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe.

Well, sorry to beat a late parrot, but one year does not a trend make: if we look at, say, the 5-years period between 2002 and 2006, the average annual rate of growth of France was a meagre 1.6%*, but that is equal to the euro area average and higher than what the Netherlands (1,4%) and Germany (0,9%) and Italy (0,7%) and Portugal (0,6%) managed over the same period. I’ll spare you the 10-years period (1997-2006) which is even more favorable to France.

But even if we grant the Beeb’s dubious premise that 2006 growth is the ultimate yardstick to measure the strength of an economy (and in that case I have an old “US has grown more slowly than nearly every other developed country in the world” headline from 2001 to sell you), their claim isn’t even true. Or, if it is, we can safely conclude that Italy (1,9% growth in 2006 according to Eurostat) and Portugal (1,3%) are neither European nor developed countries.
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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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Serbia: That Incredible Shrinking Country

This weekend’s election results in Serbia, and in particular the gridlock state of the political process and the resilience of the vote for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (as ably explained by Doug in the previous post), pose new, and arguably reasonably urgent questions for all those who are concerned about the future of those European countries who currently find themselves locked outside the frontiers of the European Union. What follows below the fold is a cross-post of an entry I put up earlier this afternoon on the new global economy blog: Global Economy Matters. I don’t normally like cross-posting, since I would prefer to put up original Afoe content, but my time is a bit pressed at the moment, and I feel the issues raised are important enough to merit a separate airing on this site.
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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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Italy’s Supply Constraint

The OECD estimates the current potential capacity growth rate of the Italian economy at 1.25% a year. Actually I suspect even this very low number is over-optimistic. Growth since 2002 has been as follows: 2003 – 0.1%: 2004 – 0.9%: 2005 – 0.1%. To be sure forecast growth for this year is somewhat higher, at 1.4%, and optimists are expecting this to be more or less repeated next year. But I suspect this outcome is unlikely simply because the global economy now seems to be slowing (and in particular the ever important US economy),so the strongly advantageous situation of 2006 is unlikely to be repeated, while next year the Italian government has promised to introduce an important package of spending reductions which are bound to negatively affect growth, at least in the short term..

But why is potential growth capacity in Italy so low?
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Greg Mankiw Wakes Up: Demography Does Matter

I recently berated Greg Mankiw (and the top ten world economists he pretends top cite) for the folly of suggesting that fertility rates don’t matter to economists. Well today Mankiw seems to be having (an implicit) rethink. Dependency ratios, it seems, do matter.

Now since dependency ratios are really a function of three factors – fertility, life expectancy and net migration – it is hard to deny the obvious: that fertility is important.

Mankiw also cites approvingly the opinion of US economist Jeremy Siegel to the effect that the “way to finance the baby boomers’ retirement is persistent capital inflows and trade deficits with developing countries”. Now Siegel doesn’t quite have this right here. The way to finance a high old-age dependency ratio, is through a high level of saving, and running persistent capital *outflows* and trade *surpluses*. This, of course, is precisely what Germany and Japan are now doing, (and also, incidentally, steering the currency down to reduce deflationary pressure, which is again what has been happening in Japan) and this is one of the reasons I give so much importance to this phenomenon. It is also one of the reasons why I discount the likelihood of domestic-demand-driven growth in these countries.

So all I can say is, well, well, well, welcome onboard Greg. As is well known both time consistency and cognitive dissonance are phenomena which constitute important problems for economic theory, but normally not in the sense that we can see them at work here.

A topic whose time has finally come? We will see. To quote the evolutionary biologist Linda Partridge (in another context) “there is much to do”. Would that economists were as aware of this as theoretical biologists seem to be.

Update: the problem is more perplexing than I initially imagined, since I now discover that on July 20th Greg approvingly cites a paper by Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu. The title of the paper is The Young, the Old, and the Restless: Demographics and Business Cycle Volatility , and the extract he cites is this one:

changes in the age composition of the labor force account for a significant fraction of the variation in business cycle volatility observed in the US and other G7 economies“.

Greg says that this was the most intriguing hypothesis he had heard all day (he was at the NBER Summer Institute), which is fair enough, and I don’t expect him to agree with the hypothesis simply because he finds it intriguing, but I *am* stumped to understand how he can then go on on August 26 to describe the idea that low fertility posed a serious economic problem as one of the most wrong headed ideas he had heard recently, since, obviously, it is fertility levels which in part determine age structures which in part influence volatility in business cycles (according to the intriguing hypothesis). So come on Greg, which is it, wrong-headed or intriguing?

Seriously though, my point here is not to have a go at Greg Mankiw (although I have rather done that haven’t I?). My point is to draw attention to all the confusion which is knocking about on this topic. Material not unrelated to all of this is to be found in a recent article in the FT by John Kay. Kay asks hijmself why it is that Eureka moments seldom happen to economists. Basically he suggests that the reason is down to the difference between the natural and the social sciences. I don’t buy that, and I think that we social scientists sell ourselves too cheap if we succumb to it. But by the by Kay touches on another point, and it is one which brings us back to the struggle Greg Mankiw is having with the recalcitrant phenomena, since:

“It will rarely, if ever, be the case in economics that an old account of the world will be shown to be simply wrong, like the medieval account of planetary motion, or the phlogiston theory of heat.”

Well sorry John, but we have just found one that is: the neo classical account of steady state growth, there is no real factual basis for this theory, and theoretically it isn’t hard to see that it must be flawed, if, that is, the ‘intriguing hypothesis’ which Greg was scratching his head about is a valid one, and thus, since age structures constantly change, so must rates of economic growth. In which case both steady state growth and convergence theory go quietly west, off into the sunset. The intriguing question is then of course what exactly it is which modulates the changes in age structure. This is, of course, just the kind of problem that Archimedes was toiling away with in the relatively unturbulent waters of his bathtub. Aha, now I know why it is economists seldom have Eureka moments: they all take showers.

Now just let me step outside a moment, what is going on out there, is that the sun going round the earth, or could it just be that somehow or another the earth – unbeknownst to me – is actually turning round the sun.

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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State of the World Population

I’ll keep this brief since there are some excellent guest posts just a little bit further on down the page just waiting for you to read and comment on. I’m not sure whether this is more about form or content, but the UN has a supremely interesting and readable report out today, as part of its State of the World Population programme, entitled A Passage to Hope, Women and International Migration, and whatsmore the report is presented in an extremely blog-like format, as I say highly readable and with the content readily available. And as if that wasn’t enough, the ‘traditionalist’ Financial Times (traditionalist in terms of content, not in terms of format) actually has a hyper-link to the report itself inside its article (bravo FT!). People often ask what kind of importance and influence blogs have, well sometimes I feel you only have to cast your eyes around a little bit.

On the substance front the contents of the report are obviously very relevant to our recent debate about Sub-Saharan migration to Spain. Indeed on the SotWP homepage you can find a link to a fascinating first person account by a Burkinan migrant (Adama) of his convoluted 3 year journey up through Mali, Algeria and Morocco, before finally reaching Spain via the Canary Islands. Clearly in migration terms people like Adama are the pioneers (anthropologists tend to call them the ‘heroes’, those who blaze the trail) who struggle against all adversity to find land and establish themselves (and tragically many do not make it all the way). What the arrival of Adama means is that many more will inevitably come behind, following a network logic which I have attempted to describe in the previous post.

But the new UN report isn’t about Adama, it is about the relatively new phenomenon of female-lead migration. Obviously the report highlights the situation of sex workers et al, but I would like to underline the fact, which is absolutely evident here in Spain, that the welfare services in Southern Europe at least simply cannot handle the rapid population ageing which is taking place without the massive arrival of female care-workers from outside the EU. The later economic development of Southern Europe and the comparative underdevelopment (not to say virtual non-existence in many cases) of institutional care make this inevitable.

One last thing while I am here, we have often talked about the economic growth imbalances which comparatively small migratory movements are causing between and within countries. The outward migration of skilled and highly educated workers from Germany is one such case, while the regional tensions which might arise inside Spain is another. Well today Randy McDonald has a timely and very interesting post about how oil revenues and subsequent economic growth differential in Alberta have produced a migration and fertility phenomenon which may well change the face of Canadian politics as a linguistic divide becomes a growth-model and socio-political one. Finally (the last thing after the last) anyone interested in looking into earlier European ties with Senegal (now being renewed) might like to glance at this link that Randy sent me on Senegalese participation in the European revolution of 1848, or read about the fate of one group of Senegalese soldiers who fought on the allied side in WWII, as described by Senegalese director Sembène Ousmane in his film Camp de Thiaroye (my input). And for those who still want to ask what all these Senegalese may have to offer the future Europe we are collectively building, maybe I could recommend the little known but excellent work of the Senegalese group Orchestra Baobab.