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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200 Gigabits a Second

Todd Underwood of Internet consultants Renesys has an interesting post for the day AMSIX, the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, set the world record for Internet traffic through a single facility. At 2110 CET on Monday, the world’s biggest IX saw more than 200 gigabits a second of netty goodness hurtling through its multiple 10GB Ethernet switches. That’s a whole lotta traffic. And love, this being Amsterdam.

But what especially interests me about it is that somehow, everyone does these things differently. In North America, public IXen don’t really count for much—even the mighty Equinix sees only half AMSIX’s traffic across all its exchanges. Traditionally, ISPs and telcos have preferred to set up private interconnections, or else pay a private exchange operator like Equinix. In Europe, though, public exchanges run by their users as co-operatives, where everyone connects to shared high-capacity Ethernet switches, have been a vital part of the Internet infrastructure from the word go, with LINX in Tookey Street, London SE1 being the first. Over the years, they have grown spectacularly and continue to do so—a year ago, AMS-IX was doing half the traffic it is now, LINX has doubled since January, and DECIX in Frankfurt is up 150 per cent this year.

There’s obviously a political/cultural analogy here. The Americans prefer to set up their own private wires, and the Europeans prefer sharing a really big Ethernet ring, operated as a non-profit organisation. And the South Koreans have arrived at a sort of hybrid solution, doing private interconnection in a very big way but within a shared facility. But there doesn’t seem to be any great difference in the results.

Geek culture bleg: If multiple Linux boxes are boxen, multiple muxes are muxen, more than one VAX used to be VAXen, why aren’t more than one switch switchen?

Les Jeux Sont Faits

Yes gentle readers, les jeux sont faits. Italy has entered the election season, and this time the game is for real. The outcome of this election, and the decisions which are subsequently taken will be important not just for Italy, but for the whole EU, and the stakes are not small ones: the whole European process is in play. (This post needs to be read in conjunction with the last one from Alex, and contsitutes the start of our campaign: Italian elections 2006. Incidentally, since none of us are in Italy, and since I for one tend to see everything Italian through a Spanish filter, if there is anyone out there in Italy reading this, and who fancies their hand at some guest blogging during the Italian campaign, then please consider yourself invited to contact us directly to talk about this.)

The starting point for getting a handle on Italian Elections 2006 is undoubtedly a blog post from the US economist Nouriel Roubini following an amazing outburst at the recent Davos forum by Italian economy minister Guilio Tremont (also see here).

Wolfgang Munchau takes up the issue in an FT article today.

There was a revealing incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. Nouriel Roubini, the New York-based international economist, took part in a panel discussion during which he raised questions about Italy’s future in the eurozone. A fellow panellist was Giulio Tremonti, the Italian finance minister. Professor Roubini wrote in his web log* that his presentation “caused a stir with Minister Tremonti who interrupted me in the middle of my remarks, went into a temper tantrum and shouted: ‘Go back to Turkey!’ I happen to have been born in Istanbul.”

Perhaps one should not conclude too much from this incident, but it does show one thing: European officials are getting nervous about the future of the euro. A few years ago, no one would have raised an eyebrow.

Now Munchau’s focus is Spain, but Spain and Italy here are but two sides of the same coin, the existence of low, and thoroughly inappropriate, interest rates. In the one case it is the private individual who is hopelessly in debt, in the other it is the state. Now as Munchau states:

Italy is often mentioned as the country most likely to leave the euro. I disagree. Leaving the euro would not solve any of Italy’s problems. Since Italy’s debt is mostly euro-denominated, Italy would be facing an Argentinian-style debt crisis.”

This is undoubtedly true. Leaving the euro would clearly leave Italy facing a horrible mess, of gigantic proportions, but it ducks one key question: will Italy be able to stay inside? It may well be that Italy would never ‘choose’ to leave, but can Italy find a sustainable path to maintain its membership? That is the real question, and I, for one, have serious doubts on this, doubts which I have never really tried to hide. In the face of Italy’s inability or unwillingness to correct its course, the issue is, as Roubini himself asked in an earlier post, in the game of chicken which is now being played between the Italian state and the EU institutions who will be the first to blink? Certainly no-one here has a very viable exit strategy to hand. The latest news on the current attempts to reign in the debt is certainly far from reassuring.

So, to start the ball rolling, here are a number of the key issues as I see them:

1/. The existence of a huge and unsustainable public debt, no clear evidence that anything is going to be done about this, and the accompanying serious policy headache both for the EU Commission and the ECB.

2/. The presence of a high level of private saving, coupled with a far from dynamic internal economy.

3/. The fact that Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe which make the population pyramid unsustainable in the long term together with a lack of the real resources needed to introduce a programme of public policy to address this problem.

4/ The presence of strong xenophobic attitudes among leading members of the Berlusconi government (and here) which makes recourse to serious immigration as a paliative to the demographic problems extraordinarily complicated while at the same time making the conduct of EU foreign policy even more of a headache.

5/ A long and complicated history of corruption at many levels of private (and here) and public life (and here), and a complete lack of infomational transparency in dealings with the EU.

6/. The presence of a heavily ‘familiaristic’ approach to public policy which prevents realism and objective debate in looking for solutions to Italy’s long term structural difficulties.

7/. The existence of a strong sense of denial inside Italy itself about the scale of the problems and a real and present willingness to blame the euro itself for all the problems.

This list of headaches is undoubtedly long enough already, and undoubtedly more topics could quickly be added, they do howvere form a starting point for a full and frank dicussion of the problem. Let the games commence!

Viva Ricardo!

Guy of these pages recently spoke to a “source” who has an interesting counter-take on the Italian economy and the Italian government’s debt problem to that frequently discussed here. Apparently, the feller says, there’s no chance of “an Argentinian-style blowout” because of the low levels of private debt.

The source is essentially arguing that Ricardian equivalence holds for Italy. That is to say, private and public savings ratios match each other-when the government borrows, the private sector saves, and vice versa. Hence the recovery path after a debt crisis would be that firms and households load up on debt to invest and consume, kick starting a Keynesian recovery.

Now, it’s an observable fact that the Italian government is up to its neck in debt and households are hoarding cash, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ricardian equivalence holds. Correlation does not imply causation, and Ricardian equivalence itself is anything but uncontroversial. In fact, it’s not so much an economic theory as a point for discussion, despite having been around almost as long as economics itself. There are some cases that support it – Israel in the 1980s being the classic – but a lot that don’t.

Arguments that fit the facts are always preferable to ones that don’t, but yer man is a braver man than me if he is basing his business decisions on this theory. Especially, I’m not at all clear on what the intermediate analysis/microfoundations are meant to be-how do we get from here to there? Presumably the Eurocrisis option would be one – out of the €, deep devaluation, export-led recovery and follow through to the domestic economy. But the pain of such a course would be epic. And it’s still worth pointing out that I still haven’t met a European business person who considers it even within the realm of the non-crazed (perhaps I don’t deal with enough Italians). More seriously, the panic and Weltuntergangsstimmung that would accompany such a course would have dramatically depressing effects on those ol’ animal spirits.

What of a forced Ricardian equivalence, about the only other story I can see that would satisfy our man’s argument? Imagine that the Italian government retires large quantities (perhaps massive quantities in the course of a debt crisis) of bonds from private and institutional investors and refinances them with the banks. Government paper is a reserve asset, and an increase in reserve assets should mean a multiple increase in credit creation to the private sector. One may recall that some monetarist-minded governments have been keen on manipulating the balance between T-bill-like assets held by banks and bonds held by funds and individuals in order to influence the creation of credit, usually in a deflationary direction – so why not in an inflationary direction?

It’s a bit like reversing the economic flux capacitor, and it’s certainly what in computing we would call a horrible, kludgy hack, and the inflationary bit could easily go well out of kilter, and the whole thing would be dependent on a lot of good will from a lot of banks, but it bears a passing resemblance to some proposals of Paul Krugman’s regarding Japan in the late 1990s. Edward Hugh will no doubt call attention to the similarities between the problems.

Does the weirdness of the solutions mark the optimism of the “source’s” argument? Or is it a long shot..but it might just work? A key number will clearly be the percentage of Italian government debt held by banks.

Premature Evaluation, pt 2 (Grace and Power)

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, I’m not trying to sell a review of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House, by Sally Bedell Smith. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.
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Petrol, Petrom, and the President

So, President Basescu is unhappy.

This is not unusual. President Basescu is often unhappy. You’d think that, having won the election last December against Prime Minister Nastase, he’d be at least content. But Basescu is a scrapper, and he’s always looking for a fight, and in recent weeks he’s found one. It’s about petrol, and Petrom.

Perhaps I should explain.
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German Confidence Indexes

The sharp eyed will have noticed that I have copiously refrained from commenting on the unexpectedly high reading obtained in yesterday’s German Ifo Institute Business Climate index. The index registered a slight unexpected increase, but as Ifo President Hans-Werner Sinn notes: “An evaluation of responses submitted before and after the federal election showed a tendency to more unfavourable expectations after than before the election, so the reading may in fact say a lot more about sentiment before rather than after the election.

More informative in many ways may be the Gfk consumer climate survey out today (follow link and click on button). The survey, which attempts to forecast the climate going forward, saw an increase in the number expressing scepticism about private income expectations and the propensity to buy:

While in August this year the consumer mood was still relatively unaffected by the hike in oil prices and yet fired by the prospects of the elections, both the tax reform and the trend in oil prices seem to have been felt in September. Indicators covering private income and private consumption are particularly affected. Consequently, the consumer climate was also slightly down. In contrast, economic prospects have become more optimistic. The findings of the September survey given below do not reflect the outcome of the recent elections, since the survey was completed just before the date when the elections were held.”

At the present time it is very hard to assess what the impact of Germany’s election stalemate will be on the economic climate moving forward.

Gloomy, or Just More Realistic?

One of the problems of being a ‘dissenting voice’ is that it is hard for others to get a grip on a yardstick for evaluating what you are saying. Normally I am considered ‘gloomy’. But if what I am arguing against is a concoction of all the ‘best case’ scenarios rolled meticulously into one, it might be fair for me to ask, aren’t those who point the finger really guilty of presenting an excessively rosy panorama.

Latest case in point are the consensus projections for life expectancy, as highlighted by the forthcoming UK pensions Commission interim report, details of which are ‘leaked’ in today’s FT:
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Fiscal Tickery

Thanks David for the link. I haven’t commented on this because like Dutch finance minister Zalm (who I imagine working away weblogging into the early hours under a dim light provided only by his mobile phone) I am tired. I can’t help feeling that everything that needs to be said has already been said, and many times over. Now all we can reasonably do is wait and see the consequences.
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Interesting Take on Yukos

A very interesting take on the Yukos situation from the Moscow Times. And one which relates directly to some of the privatisation issues we were debating recently. Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, argues basically that given that the Russian economy is dominated by an oligarchic structure of raw materials quasi-monopolies, and given that a majority of the population seem to want these monopolies returning to state ownership, the only ‘democratic’ solution is an authoritarian one. Khodorkovsky had another idea, and hence off he went to prison. Any comparisons with or lessons for Iraq here? Can democracy be introduced like this? Off you go.
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