The End of the Dolce Vita?

Are the good times and the good life still going to continue to roll in the Italy of the twenty first century? This is the core question the Economist’s Europe editor John Peet asks in the latest Economist Survey: Italy, Addio, Dolce Vita. As Peet says:

Italy is approaching a crunch. Rather like Venice in the 18th century, it has coasted for too long on the back of its past success. Again like Venice, it has lost many of the economic advantages which underpinned that success. For Venice, it was a near-monopoly on trade with the East that paid for the creation of its beautiful palaces and churches; today’s Italy has benefited hugely from a combination of low-cost labour and a switch of workers away from low-productivity farming (and the south) into manufacturing (mostly in the north). But such good things invariably come to an end.

Italy badly needed a dose of pro-market reforms, liberalisation, privatisation, deregulation and a shake-up of the public administration, all of which Mr Berlusconi had promised. He even pledged to cut taxes. A majority of Italian voters, backed by much of Italian business, were willing to overlook both his legal entanglements and his conflicts of interest and give him a chance to reform the country. But as the next election approaches, very little of what he promised has been delivered, so many of his erstwhile supporters are feeling disillusioned.
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UK and German Retirement Policies Compared

As we all know raising the participation rates of older workers is both essential and a core component of the Lisbon Agenda, so here’s a timely report from the Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society comparing policies directed towards older workers in the UK and Germany. More salacious material to stimulate all you policy wonkers out there. (Hat Tip to David from North Sea Diaries). Looking at the table on page 3 the UK seems to have been a good deal more successful in acieving these objectives over the last decade. In both coutries male participation rates in the 55-64 age group has actually gone down since 1990, with the increase for the group as a whole being a matter of increasing female participation. On the other hand the UK has managed to reverse the 1990 – 2000 downward male trend and between 2000 and 2004 55-64 male participation went up, something which it noticably didn’t do in Germany.

The report concludes that the primary deficit concerning active labour market policies for older unemployed in Germany is the lack of specific targeting of this group both in active job placement and training. In the UK, the scope of active measures is rather limited both with regard to the kind of measures � New Deal 50 plus/New Deal 25 plus � and the level and duration of funding………In the UK � despite a more socially inclusive stance recently � funding of job creation and a broad application of training measures has not taken place so far, given the low intervention character of labour market policies. In Germany, in the wake of recent labour market reforms, a shift in paradigm towards a more activating approach to job placement has been implemented.

Hanging In The Balance

UK property prices have been hovering dangerously around the zero price growth mark for the last couple of months. Year on year growth is of course dropping substantially and we are now just below the 3% annual mark. Definitely one to keep watching.

UK house price inflation fell in August according to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, giving further indications of a slowdown in the property market. Annual inflation fell to just 2.8 per cent in August, down from 4 per cent in July and 13.6 per cent a year ago.

The ODPM reported that house price growth in London, which tends to lead overall trends in the market, slowed to 0.8 per cent from 0.9 per cent in July. The average house price in the UK barely changed in August, standing at �186,208 compared with �186,207 in July.

Some analysts have concluded that these numbers suggest that the market might be stabilising at current levels. …But there will be continued concern that as house price inflation on all the main indicators heads towards zero, the current stability in the market will not last. Nervousness is likely to increase as property investors realise they can no longer rely on the prospect of capital gains to offset the reality of low rental yields.

Another Grand Coaltion: The Sun of Jamaica.

Over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell – I think somewhat accidently, because I get the impression he believes Germans do *NOT* want to change their distorted labour incentive and tax systems – writes about the fundamental reason for the result of last Sunday’s election.
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CDU: Screwing up on purpose?

Ok, now that Edward has already mentioned it, I might as well explain in a little more detail what I meant by saying that “on some level, the CDU might be afraid to win.”

Last Saturday evening, strolling through Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, Edward asked me about my gut feeling concerning the outcome of the German election next week. I told him that, while it was rather entertaining, this campaign has also been confusing – and confused – in many ways, particularly when looking at the CDU. And I believe the confused and confusing campaign the CDU is conducting is even more an expression of the way the German establishment is puzzled about the way ahead than the fact that Schröder “called” the elections a year too early, too early for any of his reforms to have any perceptible impact on the economy, not even in the West.
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The Emerging Global Labour Market

Opening my McKinseyQuarterly Newsletter today, I find an interesting link to the McKinsey Global Institute’s latest contribution (free, but registration required) to the question whether Globalization is actually civilizing, destructive, or feeble – as Wharton’s Mauro Guillen put it in this paper with reference to Albert Hirschman’s analysis of the shifting social value attributed to markets.

Actually, the analysis is not so much concerned with moral evaluations but – as one of the study’s authors, Diana Farrell, put it in the preface, with providing

“… a fact base to the public debate on offshoring and
the emerging global labor market to enable policy makers and business leaders
to make more informed and better decisions.”

Even if the study only projects trends up to 2008, it is still apparent that any conclusions drawn from an attempt to analyse something as vast and complicated as the global labour market will always depend on far too many assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true. After all, McKinsey also managed to present a model for rationlising stock market valuations for non-cash-flow-generating companies before and after the crash in 2000 – the variable that changed was… expectations.

Still, I think it is a valuable contribution to raise the quality of the public debate by actually attempting to quantify some variables determining demand and supply. While the study – as far as I can tell from looking at the executive summary – does not support the “feeble” view of globalization, when reading the results it is probably still helpful not to forget that McKinsey is unlikely to be interested in increasing their clients’ employees fear of being outsourced any further (the study deals only with white collar offshoring) –

  • Offshoring will probably continue to create a relatively small global labor market?one that threatens no sudden discontinuities in
    overall levels of employment and wages in developed countries.
  • Demand for offshore labor by companies in the developed world will increasingly push up wage rates for some occupations in low wage countries, but not as high as current wage levels for those occupations in developed ones.
  • Potential global supply and likely demand for offshore talent are matched inefficiently, with demand outstripping supply in some locations and supply outstripping demand in others.

The Dangers Of A Housing Boom

Last year 700,000 new homes were built in Spain. A record number, and one which seems disproportionately high for Spains real future housing needs. In all likelihood the Spanish property market will one day crash, and prices drop considerably from their current highs. But what if they don’t? What if we ‘merely’ get a soft landing. This is a question the FT puts today in the US context, but what it says may be even more applicable to Spain. The economy is driven by the construction and property sector, simply slowing-up is going to have repercussions.

As property values have soared so has the level of interest in working in real estate. The number of realtors in the US has jumped by 45 per cent over the past four years to 1.1m, and many have left blue-chip companies or even delayed college to join the property jamboree. More joined the profession last year than at any time since records began in 1975.

Add in jobs in residential construction, furniture and DIY stores and mortgage finance, and the buoyant property market emerges as the main driver of employment growth over the past four years., the consultancy, estimates that about a third of the 2.6m jobs created in that period were in housing-related sectors.

This raises the question of what happens to these workers when the housing market cools.

You’d Better Move On

The papers this morning seem to be all full of ‘gloomy’ articles whose principal theme is that Europe has finally been plunged into a grave crisis by this weeks summit.

“People will tell you next that Europe is not in a crisis,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who holds the EU presidency, said after a two-day summit ended in acrimony. “It is in a deep crisis.”

As someone who is ‘crisis prone’ I would have imagined I would share that feeling. Somehow I don’t.

Some reasons why.
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No Answers Only Questions

One person who could rightly claim to know more about global ageing and its possible consequences than anyone else in the business is the German Director of the Manheim Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing Axel B?rsch-Supan. If there’s a conference being organised, he seems to be there. Actually his comments at both these meet-ups are well worth reading in and of themselves (here, and here).

In a sense B?rsch-Supan is almost uniquely qualified to express opinions on the topic since he has both devoted a large part of his professional career to studying the question, and he lives and works in a society which is already reeling under the impact. As he says:

“Today?s Germany has essentially the demographic structure that the United States will reach in a quarter of a century. The dependency ratio (the ratio of persons aged 65 and over to those aged from 20 to 59) is at 28 percent, and it will reach 75 percent in 2075, if we dare project that far. Almost one-fifth of the German population today are aged 65 and over. One quarter are aged 60 and over, which is relevant because the average retirement age in Germany is 59.5 years. Thus, in this sense the United States is not ?entering largely uncharted territory,? …. Rather, they can look to Europe?in particular to Germany and Italy?to see what will happen in the United States.”

I mention B?rsch-Supan because he serves as a good pretext for going over where we are to date with the issue. As he says himself. watching demography change is rather like watching a glacier melt, on a day-to-day basis it’s hard to see that anything is happening, but over time the impact is important.

One of his recent papers has the intriguing title: “Global Ageing: Issues, Answers, More Questions“. It is a good up-to-date review of the ‘state of the art’, and a quick examination of the points he makes probably serves as a good starting point, since I can’t help thinking, in the case of global ageing, it isn’t so much what we know that matters, it’s what we don’t know.

So here we go, a review of what we “know”, what we think we know, and what we don’t know:
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Your Next Car ‘Made in China’?

China is getting into car manufacture in a big way, but before going further with this, let me sidetrack you to another article in today’s FT. Here you will find two interesting details. Firstly, according to Arthur Kroeber, of China Economic Quarterly, ?Since 2003, China has gone from being a net importer of capital goods to being a net exporter”. I’m still loking for some confirmation of this, but if true, it is very significant. The other detail: overcapacity means there is a continuing price war in China, and factory gate prices are falling. This point needs to be borne in mind by all those who imagine a rise in the value of the Renminbi would produce a comparative increase in ‘mark to market’ prices for consumers. I’m with Morgan Stanley’s Andy Xie here, overcapacity is likely to be such that the ‘pass through’ rate would be minimal, most of the on-costs being absorbed by an ever more deflationary environment in China.

Interestingly enough, Jean Claude Trichet gave three arguments, at the end of his press conference yesterday, in order to justify the urgent necessity for the Lisbon Agenda: ageing, technological changes, and growing global competition (or labour arbitrage in Stephen Roach’s language). I couldn’t agree more.

Now for the cars. Yale Global has reproduced an interesantissimo supplement from the FT:

Automakers may see China as a growing market, but soon they may face unexpected competition from a number of manufacturers who are seeking to export to the West, as well. Several Chinese companies have already begun a trial run in the Middle East to prepare for the US market, the goal of more than two decades of attempts to build a competitive car industry. The Chinese companies will encounter numerous obstacles and opponents ? including the multinational companies that currently dominate the global markets ? but if successful, they could reshape the auto industry. Because the economies of countries like the US and Germany depend heavily on the auto industry, the implications of such a move are substantial. How will the West respond?

Read-on here