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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The Euro and Structural Reform

New Economist has a useful post one the euro and the reform process. He picks up on the point that as much as interest rate cuts, what the eurozone needs are the Lisbon Reforms. He also points to the fact that having cheap money in the southern part of Europe may be impeding and not facilitating reform. What can I say, I agree:

Nonetheless, I hope the ECB eventually do cut rates. Even if the stimulus to growth proves to be modest, it can’t hurt (likewise a weaker Euro). But of course what’s really needed in Europe is structural reform of product and labour markets, greater competition and the extension of the single market to services.

This makes the findings of new research by OECD economists Romain Duval and Jorgen Elmeskov, delievered at a recent ECB conference, all the more disturbing. Their paper, The effects of EMU on structural reforms in labour and product markets (PDF), points to:

…the apparent slowdown in the reform process after the formal advent of the euro and by the limited ability of EMU countries ? with the exception of few small ones and of reforms to retirement schemes ? to carry out needed reforms in areas where political resistance is normally strong.

This is consistent with their finding that:

…the absence of monetary policy autonomy seems to be associated with lower structural reform activity in large, more closed economies.

…Obviously these simple findings should not be exaggerated. However, if additional testing suggests that they are robust it would point to a potentially problematic aspect of EMU. In particular, an effect of EMU in the direction of weakening the incentives for structural reform in the larger member countries would be a cause for concern.

The First Chink of Light

There is a very interesting article in todays Financial Times. For the first time an executive board member of the ECB – Lucas Papademos – has spoken openly about the difficulties presented by having a single monetary policy for such a diverse set of economies. In fact these comments take on more significance in the light of the fact that Papademos is vice President of the ECB, and widely tipped to replace Otmar Issing as Chief Economist when Issing retires.
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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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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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Europe hors l’Europe

Since I’m on the subject of things extra-European today, I note that Le Monde is reporting that there will be a referendum in Guadéloupe and Martinique in December over changing the status and government structure of France’s Caribbean colonies. France has a tradition of being a very centralised state, but the last 20 years or so have seen the end of the old regime. Powers are now devolved to regional governments, and the DOM-TOM’s are increasingly autonomous. Corsica’s little set-back recently is, I suspect, just a speedbump in the decline of the centralised French state.

What I would like to propose is the idea that maybe there needs to be some debate on the status of Europe’s extra-European areas as whole.
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Anyone Want to Play Ball With Me?

Even though it may appear that this post runs along much the same lines as my last two or three, I should warn you: appearances are sometimes deceptive. The origins of what I want to say here stretch back in time two or three days to some comments I made on an earlier post and a subsequent piece which I have entitled the ‘Pele-Ronaldo’ effect. Surprising as it may seem, the topic here is only tangentially football. The real topic is the so-called brain drain, and how our initial intuitions may mislead us. The aforementioned effect is associated with the apparent detail that all those Brazilians ‘heading the ball’ here in Europe have not notedly had a detrimental effect on the rate at which Brazilian football produces outstanding new stars. In fact quite the contrary.

Now here’s the rub: just think of all those Indian IT ‘stars’ working at NASA, Microsoft and the like, and try to imagine the consequences back home in India. Well then try to imagine the consequences of the secondary effect in India on the employment situation in the US and now increasingly in Europe, and we get to the point of all this. We are experiencing a phenomenon which some are calling ‘hollowing out’. This has been noticed in the first place in the US, but with the EU structural reforms, and the relatively high euro, this tendency is going to make itself felt more and more over here. So this is the purpose of the post. To find out what people think.
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