Economic Interests

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Archive for the tag “Economics”

A Recovering Britain?


The new Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, has shown impeccable timing. He leaves Canada in the best shape of the G7 members, boasting GDP at least 5% higher since the crisis began  compared to Britain, where GDP has still yet to catch up to its previous peak.  But he also leaves the country with some long term problems that he won’t have to deal with. Canada is facing a rising debt problem as more and more consumers are borrowing money they don’t have. This is compounded by Mr Carneys low interest rates, which are needed to boost growth but are now encouraging reckless borrowing. Growth is also slowing this year, with the Canadian central bank now cutting projection for the next few years.

As this graph shows, Britain is experiencing a worryingly slow recovery compared to previous years, with GDP still somewhat below the 2008 peak.  

In contrast he arrives in the UK at a possible turning point.  After five years of a deep recession followed by a failed recovery, the statistics are now finally pointing to better times. Manufacturing and construction are growing, consumer confidence is improving and new schemes to help boost lending and property buying seem to be working. GDP is set to grow at around 1% this year if the economy stays on track and unemployment is staying low compared to the rest of Europe.

Yet there is an underlying problem in Britain’s economy that will prove hard to fix for the new Governor.

The average wage in the UK has declined by 5.5% since mid 2010 when adjusted for inflation, falling further than some of the worse off countries in the EU like Spain. This won’t surprise Britons, where the cost of living is squeezing the incomes of many households. As wages have remain restricted since the recession by companies that can either not afford the higher costs or are simply taking advantage of the desperate workforce, inflation has been increasing at between 2-4% a year. This can particularly be seen in the steep rises of energy bills, which have  more than doubled in the period from 2004 to 2011. More price rises are set to happen in the future too, with some energy companies suggesting bills will be £100 more than government projections state for 2020.

As this graph shows, Wages and inflation have diverged negatively since the recession, squeezing real incomes. Found at http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/6994/economics/uk-wage-growth/

Even the new positive growth numbers hide this problem. Instead of salary rises, people are turning to borrowing again to supplement their income. Personal debt has increased by £4 billion in the last year and is worryingly becoming a necessity for families to keep up current costs, along with benefits. If growth recorded in the first quarter at 0.3% had been based on wages, it would have fallen by more than 1% and pushed Britain into recession. A real recovery will need wage growth to create real growth. Otherwise a debt inspired recovery could see interest rates start to rise, leading to costlier interest payments on the debt held by consumers, leading to more defaults and another market crash.

A worrying trend is that of the zero hour contracts, where companies do not have to stipulate what hours an employee is working each week. Additionally, they don’t have to provide the employment benefits that full time employees receive like sick pay and maternity leave. Regulation is lighter in such work places and offers no real job protection, leaving the employees less likely to spend freely if they don’t have a consistent salary or job. This can only harm the economy’s recovery at a fragile time.

Yet there are some positives. Unemployment has stayed relatively low in the UK since the recession because of the countries flexible labour market. Instead of industry wide lay-offs, companies were able to lower salaries to keep people employed. This was healthy, as employees on low wages were better than the unemployed claiming benefits. But with the economy now trying to recover, there is no longer that fear of a market crash to hold companies back from increasing wages.

Unemployment has remained steady and relatively low compared to the rest of Europe, when unemployment is more than double in Britain’s in countries like Greece and Spain. Found at http://www.goldmadesimplenews.com/analysis/unemployment-in-the-uk-rises-to-7-8-as-real-wages-have-go-down-for-nearly-5-years-in-a-row-9951/

The problem is that while consumer have been able to borrow money freely, companies are finding it a much harder task, especially the smaller and medium sized firms that employ the majority of the population. Banks, the biggest lenders to businesses, are focusing on building up their capital for new regulations, meaning they are averse to lending money to companies that don’t have the size and market share to guarantee their loans. There is a lack of a genuine back up to the banks for smaller companies, in contrast to the bigger companies that can lend from the international markets for affordable rates. This is restricting both current companies struggling to grow and new ones trying to enter the market.

 

This affects the public, as investment improves productivity which tends to influence higher wages. Right now business investment is down by a third since the recession, productivity has declined despite more people being in work and real wages have therefore fallen. Astonishingly, the UK ranks 159th in the world for its investment to GDP ratio.

The solution is therefore to improve the market for lending to small and medium businesses. This is easier said than done. Banks are still a long way off from their pre-recession lending rates; especially with two of the biggest banks still part owned by the government. People are wary to see banks go back to that sort of lending anyway, with bankers lending recklessly and risking too much money. But a middle ground must be found to provide capital to the rest of the market. Different lenders must be found as well; in America banks share a much a lower percentage of the lending market than in the UK and Europe, one example of why America has outperformed both since the recession. One such example is peer-to-peer leaning, where the two largest providers in the USA lent over $1.7 billion in the last five years. One recent improvement has been the “Funding for Lending” scheme which gives incentives to banks to lend by offering money that can only be used to lend to businesses.

Britain is further ahead than the rest of Europe in solving this problem and is thinking outside the box to improve the economies main weakness. If lending can pick up and even better without having to rely solely on the biggest banks, then investment can pick up and wages could start to grow.

It’s not the recession but how the country recovers that will come to define Britain.

Democracy struggles in the global recovery


Democracy has never been so popular. The Arab summer saw dictatorships overthrown and replaced with democratic intentions while in Africa the percentage of democratic countries has increased from 7% in 1990 to nearly 40% last year. The two giants in South America; Brazil and Argentina, have even managed to elect female leaders, something the USA has still yet to achieve. In the world as a whole, democracies roughly account for 60% of the world’s 196 countries, nearly doubling in the last two decades.

So the public should be happy right?

Wrong. The definition of a democracy is vague and the differences between elections in one continent to the next can be staggering. Some “democratic” countries are rather misleading as well; for example Hugo Chavez won consecutive elections, but was an autocratic dictator in all but name, widely considered to have rigged elections and bought votes. Russia as well holds elections, but the chances of President Putin losing an election are slim to none, with the Kremlin wielding a tight fist over the polling system.  That lowers the level of truly democratic countries to a less impressive 25% according to some statistics.

The Financial Times graph shows the election results that awarded the presidency to Vladimir Putin were controversial to say the least. 

Even those countries are now facing troubles. The global recession sprouted protest movements like “Occupy Wall Street” and started a trend that has culminated in the widespread trouble many countries are now experiencing. Brazil angered their people by overspending on the world cup, which has vastly trumped the costs for the South African World Cup, while neglecting the public services that will be so key to the a successful tournament. Turkey’s suppressive leader, Prime Minister Erdogan, has pushed his people too far, putting into law tight rules on alcohol and arresting journalists at a higher rate than that of China. Egypt meanwhile democratically elected the Muslim Brotherhoods front man Mohammed Morsi, who promptly handed himself dictator like powers and refused to listen to the secular opposition.

The world cup stadiums have come at too high a cost for most Brazilians, when the quality of living is nowhere near to that of the stadiums.

In the last two examples there can be seen a link, with both the Turkish and Egyptian leaders exploiting the lack of important institutions and constitutions to grant themselves greater control of the country. Winning majorities in the elections seemed to suggest a remit to do as they liked, without consulting the public, especially the percentage that didn’t vote for them. It’s not a coincidence that Brazil has seen the least hostile protests, with President Dilma Rousseff agreeing with the public’s right to peaceful protests (while quite rightly criticizing the small minority that turned violent).

Yet even the Western countries with stable democracies have seen unrest. Southern Europeans have become frustrated with the levels of austerity being enforced upon them by Brussels and Berlin. Greece has been the main recipient, but even the likes of France are starting to feel the tension, with the approval rating of President Hollande diving to a lowly 24%. Britain suffered more in 2011, when riots in London spread across the country and caused national panic. Though the origin was most likely the austerity the coalition was embracing to cut Britain’s large budget deficit, racial tensions were a common thread, with the London Met still dominated by the white British (around 80%) in a city where that is now considered a minority.

The British riots caused major panic, as some feared the country was spiraling out of control.

The USA however managed to largely bypass these protests, mainly by keeping up their spending levels and kicking the austerity can down the road. Only this year has Barack Obama actually looked to cut down the trillion dollar deficit he had been running consecutively in his first term, with the automatic sequester cutting budgets by $85 billion in 2013. Yet democracy hasn’t looked too rosy for the USA either. The deadlock between the president and congress has become a serious problem, with a polarised government failing to put policies through. A small tightening of the gun laws this year was rejected by the republican dominated congress mostly out of spite, while a recent farming bill (consisting of subsidies for farmers and food stamps) was rejected for the second year running despite holding policies both sides have traditionally liked. Even worse, both sides nearly forced each other to walk off the fiscal cliff at the start of the year, with the president reluctant to cut spending and the congress incessant on not raising taxes. Luckily both sides managed to reach a bipartisan agreement, though if anything this has emboldened both parties beliefs that their way is the only way.

The inability to agree with the more popular President Obama has seen Congress’s approval rating fall sharply to record lows. 

In the last 5 years democracy has taken a bashing, that much is easy to see. For every success like Myanmar, there is a monumental failure like Syria to counter balance it. Yet, many countries still strive for the democracy that the west has enfamed. Giving the public the ability to choose its leaders is a right many in the west take for granted, but something many societies go without. The protests are simply another form of democracy, giving a voice to a cause that the government might be ignoring or missing. In the three biggest protests right now, you can rank Brazil as the most democratic and Egypt as the least. Egypt could have stopped the protests that started last year by listening to the public and engaging them, rather than trying to stamp them down. Turkey started off in a similar vein, but has now tried negotiating with the protesters, especially with the Kurds, who threatened to take the protests to another scale. Brazil however, have largely allowed the protests to take place, and allowing for some violent episodes have seen the least chaos. The government is also opening up a dialogue with the protesters, agreeing to some of their demands for increased funding to the public services. The country still has a long way to go, and could have foreseen the public out roar that was building, but have so far acted in the most democratic fashion.

The protests might be shocking to see, but they are easily trumped by the actions of say the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square, or the conditions of the North Korean people who are denied any access to the outside world. Such dictatorship allows for such short term protests to be stamped down on quickly, but encourages longer term distrust and anger toward the controlling governments. The answer for the countries facing public unrest is for more democracy not less. Allowing the public to voice its frustrations can let off steam and negate anger building up and people acting out in frustration.  In the USA’s situation, more democratic bipartisan talks between the two parties would result in much higher success rate for important policies. The immigration reform coming through shows signs of this much needed bipartisan agreement, but party politics could still derail negotiations.

It must be remembered that there are much worse scenario’s than the current protests hitting democracy.

As Winston Churchill famously said “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Thatcherism: One foot in the grave?


On the 8th April, Britain said goodbye to their first female Prime Minister, arguably the most famous one since Winston Churchill. The reaction has been mixed to say the least, with Baroness Thatcher a bit like marmite; you either love her or hate her. On the positive side; she ended the trade unions grip on the country, reduced the high inflation rate, created a free market approach and helped retain Britain’s global influence at a time when other super powers were rising to the top. On the other hand, she helped divide the country even further, centralised power in Westminster, reduced public investment in infrastructure and hardly made a dent in the issue of equality. She also made a lot of enemies, in particular the mining industry, civil right activists and even her own party (who still suffer under her shadow).

But no matter what you think of her personally, her economy policies have had a lasting effect on the nation and the world as a whole. Her following loosely of the ideas of Friedrich Hayek was extremely brave when the rest of the world was dominated by Maynard Keynes ideas. The idea in general was to shrink the state and its effect on the country, thereby allowing the private sector to grow. When governments enter the markets they tend to crowd out private enterprises and mange sectors poorly, so Baroness Thatcher privatised big industries in transport and energy and eliminated state controls. This improved productivity in the nation and set off a trend of privatisation throughout Europe and the wider world. Germany fully privatised its national champion Volkswagen in 1988 while even France, a country that never fully caught on to privatisation, sold off shares in Renault in 1996 (though it still holds a 15% ownership to this day). In Eastern Europe and Latin America, privatisation became extremely popular, as it encouraged outward investment into the country that the governments couldn’t hope to create by themselves. In Poland between 1990 and 2004, 5,511 public owned enterprises were privatised, while Latin America keenly accounted for 55% of global privatisation in the 1990’s. Annual revenues from global privatisation as a whole peaked in 1998 at over $100 billion, showing the extent to which “Thatcherism” had an effect on the whole world in the aftermath of her term in office.

France privatized Renault, though they still hold a 15% stake.

Yet times do appear to be changing. The world-wide recession (a caveat of the free market economy Margaret Thatcher brought in) forced many governments to resume ownership of previously private industries, especially the banking sector. The UK government partly nationalised RBS in 2008 and now owns a majority 81% stake, Holland recently nationalised bank and insurance group SNS Reaal for €10 billion, Belgium nationalised their big bank Dexia in 2011 while Spain had to request almost €40 billion in bailout funds for its four nationalised banks late last year; Bankia, Catalunya Banc, Banco Gallego and NCG Banco. This isn’t all, in South America, a region so keen on privatisation, the trend is also reversing. Argentina last year took a majority 51% stake in YPF (an oil company) without giving its parent company Repsol (a Spanish Company which held 75% of YPF) a cent. YPF aren’t alone, Ms Fernandez (Argentina’s President) also nationalised their private pension funds and a large airline, with the latter flagging (44% of Aerolíneas Argentina’s flights were not running on time last year).  If it weren’t enough for Spain to lose YPF, they also lost another company to a South American President. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, nationalised their national power grid company of which a majority was owned by a Spanish company. Mr Morales has at least in the past offered remuneration, though often it has been below free market levels. Finally there is Venezuela, who suffered their own loss of a famous leader, Hugo Chavez. The dominant leader was beloved by his public and encouraged national patriotism by nationalising large parts of the economy. But this is possibly the worst example of nationalisation. Mr Chavez employed only those loyal to him in powerful state positions, rather than those best for the job. He gave cash handouts to the population but has had one of the worst records in the region for lifting people out of poverty.

Another fallen political leader leaves behind another controversial legacy 

Margaret Thatcher was a willing accomplice to globalisation, which has seen trade explode between nations and barriers broken down. So she would be sad to see that the WTO has cuts projections for trade this year down from 4.5% to 3.3% due to increased squabbling over trade restrictions, while protectionist policies in some studies have been suggested to have increased by 36% in 2010/11. The financial crisis’s long lasting consequence has been the setback in the expansion of integration within the world, with countries now moving towards protectionist policies more and more. In the recent EU budget talks for example, one of the few areas not to be discussed were Frances protected agriculture subsidies (where tariffs on non-EU goods have known to reach 156%). Then there was the decision by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to increase Industrialised products tax by 30% in 2011 for vehicles where 65% of the value added did not originate in Brazil, despite breaking WTO rules.

More worryingly, the biggest trade zone right now is facing big doubts over its future.  The EU is the biggest backer of free trade in the world, so if it were to break up, it would set the world back years. The lack of tariffs and trade caps between EU nations majorly simplifies the whole process, reducing the red tape that clogs up businesses and increasing the number of options open to the consumer. The percentage of trade in EU states between each other is falling sadly, with Germanys decreasing by nearly 10% since before the financial crisis (though there are other contributing factors). The single market also bizarrely does not include services, which account for around 71% of EU GDP but only 3.2% of intra-EU trade.

Share of intra-EU trade in Germany's total foreign trade

Thatcherism however is hardly dead. Free trade deals that many thought were long gone are starting to pop up once again. The EU and USA are discussing a “transatlantic trade and investment partnership”, which could according to some estimates boost GDP in both regions by between 0.5-1% to perhaps even triple that, depending on the amount of restrictions reduced. Tariffs only average about 3% between the regions, but other barriers to trade are aplenty and go a long way to restricting trade. Additionally there are the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks between the North American and South East Asian regions. The aim is to cut trade restrictions between 11 nations, including; USA, Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia. The countries involved account for around 30% of global trade and could improve the economies GDP’s by an estimated 1%. Neither deal is even close to being finished, but they both bring hope to the idea of free trade that Margaret Thatcher helped popularise in the 1980’s.

After the global recession, many criticised the free market approach as the main cause for the financial crisis, but the easy excuse isn’t always the right one. A free market doesn’t have to result in a lack of regulation and poor preparation, which were the real causes for the banking crash. A balance is needed for it to work, free market policies used along with guidance (not interference) from the state.

Baroness Thatcher may have passed on, but her free market policies are still alive and kicking.

Is the EU being dragged apart?


After a sense of calm had finally emerged in the eurozone since last summer, panic has erupted once again. Cyprus’s long awaited bailout was carried out with little thought of the consequences, both short term and long. The initial decision to place a one off tax on all depositors in Cypriot banks, both over and under €100,000, was always going to lead to public uproar and a bank run. The second bailout decision was slightly better, only affecting those with over €100,000 in their banks accounts and winding down one of Cyprus’s biggest banks, the Laiki bank, while switching accounts to the Bank of Cyprus. But the damage had already been done; the government now has to enforce capital controls to keep money in the country, while the public won’t forget how close it came to them losing chunks of their bank balance. It has almost certainly ruined one of Cyprus’s biggest sources of income as an offshore financial haven, with the conditions of the bailout most likely requiring reforms of the country’s economy. Then there is the tourism sector (another big market) which will be hit, as foreigners won’t want to risk getting caught in the middle of another financial crisis. Worst of all, this will not be the end of it; the economy is set to retract by 5% in the more positive estimates and another bailout will need to be negotiated.

Cyprus’s  Debt-to-GDP ratio could overtake Greece in the future by some estimates. Found at http://trueeconomics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/2432013-are-cypriot-debt-dynamics-worse.html

Yet this is not the biggest worry for the European Union. Cyprus accounts for a tiny 0.2% of Eurozone GDP, its bailout at €10 billion is minuscule compared to the €246 billion needed to bailout Greece. If the economy crashed and defaulted on its debt, it would hardly tear the European Union apart. The bigger repercussions of this debacle are that the EU looks as divided as ever. The capital controls being placed on the Cypriot economy are not supposed to be possible in the EU – they are the first case of it since its creation. They are supposed to be short term, but then the same was said about Iceland 4 years ago.

 Cyprus’s Bailout is tiny compared to the other EU Bailouts. Found at http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/03/daily-chart-18

Even more worrying is that the much heralded banking union that the EU nations announced last year now seems less likely. The European Central Bank was set to bail out troubled banks directly, thereby cutting off the self-defeating link between weak banks and weak governments. But to some member countries that seemed too much like gifting money without conditions that have so far been ever present within bailouts e.g. reforms to the economy. Cyprus was the big test, to see if the ECB would directly fund the failing banks of the island, but disappointingly this was not to be the case. A banking union would have showed a more unified EU, with member countries prepared to provide assistance to troubled states. It could have possibly paved the way for joint government bonds, stopping the inconsistent borrowing costs that have spread throughout the eurozone. In reality the EU members have been diverging for awhile, amplifying the problems of the union.

Looking across the region, this isn’t the only sign of a gap emerging between EU states. Tensions are rising within the union, with the periphery nations growing resentful over the austerity policies being enforced onto their economies, while the central nations are becoming frustrated at having to rescue the weaker nations from their own mistakes. This is showing in the form of protest votes. Greece had a near miss in their latest election, where a party campaigning on leaving the euro ran the victors close. Italy went a step further, with the 5 Star Movement (a protest party lead by an ex-comedian) caused a political gridlock in the March elections which has yet to be resolved. This was helped by the far right being led by Silvio Berlusconi, a controversial billionaire who campaigned on ending the EU austerity in Italy. In Germany, Angela Merkel will soon face her own elections, where her popularity will be tested by opponents who will campaign against the continued funding of the EU by the German tax payers.

Beppe Grillo has captured votes for his 5 star movement party by campaigning for a referendum on EU membership. 

Then there is France, a country somehow caught in the middle. The nation is central to the EU, its partnership with Germany gives the union its clout and its leadership with Angela Merkel helped lead Europe through the financial crisis in 2008/2009. But Francois Hollande won his presidency by promising policies like the 75% tax on millionaires and the lowering of the retirement age, while he has backed the periphery economies in talks against austerity (to the annoyance of Angela Merkel). The French economy is in desperate need of reform and cuts however. The budget deficit is set to go over the set target of 3% of GDP, public spending is the highest in the EU at 57% of GDP and while Germany’s economy has become more competitive over the last decade, France’s has been left unproductive in the global economy. President Hollande is now set to implement the austerity measures he never mentioned during his campaign and has since seen his popularity plunge to the lowest since the firth republic began.

Showing the high public expenditure of France compared with similar sized countries. 

The contradictory aims of the different members are leaving the big decisions unmade. The lessons of the past bailouts are not being learnt; there is still no definite lender of the last resort, no banking union, no talks of the possibility of sharing out some of the debt across the union to help member states recover. Austerity is needed, but so are some pro-growth policies and just demanding more and more cuts from the bailed out countries is not going to get the right results. The EU budget could be restructured to help improve spending on much needed areas like infrastructure and reduce spending on subsidies like French Farming and the rebates that go to countries like Britain.

Britain is another obstacle awaiting the EU in the future. The government is set to hold a referendum after 2015 (if it wins) on its EU membership and if the union is still facing the problems it is today, it is not inconceivable that the nation could leave the club. The public are already frustrated at the European laws they have to abide by and the levels of immigration that arrive to their shores. Losing Britain would be a deep blow to the union, both as the third largest economy and as a good balance to Germany’s motives. But the growing popularity of the UKIP party, again campaigning on an exit from the EU, shows the split that is appearing between member states.

Together the EU is the biggest economic zone in the world, one which can rival the economies of the USA and China. Divided it is a bunch of quarrelling nations that can’t agree on the best policies to move forward. Right now the latter is a more poignant picture of the EU, with GDP retracting by 0.3% in 2012  and unemployment reaching a new high of 12%. Europe needs to integrate further both politically and economically if it’s reverse this slump. A move towards a banking union would be a good start, while sharing the debt burden of its weakest members would go a long way to restoring stability to an economic zone that has struggled with such a concept.

A divided Europe is a weaker Europe, let’s just hope it doesn’t take its members too long to remember this.

The Myth of Successful Eurozone Austerity: Estonia


People seeking to rebut stimulus proposals often point to the example of small Baltic republic Estonia. This is the only Eurozone country to have deleveraged significantly enough to be called “Austerian”. Estonian Government Debt went from 7.2 percent to 6 percent of GDP, a remarkably high decrease. It also has a growth rate of 8%, not only one of the highest in the Eurozone, but also unique in the world.

Austerity Advocates also seem to have their private-sector oriented rationale vindicated. Estonia is a strong producer of entrepreneurs, notably including the creation of the worldwide internet calling sensation, Skype. They are also unhindered by government bureaucracy, red tape, etc. Therefore,this should surely be an example which indicates the efficacy and the desirability of austerity policies.

However, there are several chinks in the armor of that explanation. Firstly, Estonia made significant use of EU Structural Funds, borrowing 3.4 billion Euros (approximately 20% of Estonian GDP in 2011) during the years 2007-13. Now, in whichever way the government uses this money, it is effectively a Keynesian demand-side solution. In the Estonian case, however, the funds are supposed to be used to create more jobs in the entrepreneurial sector.This would therefore increase real incomes, therefore increasing consumer spending, pushing the economy forward.

Now, there are people who argue that Government spending does not push the Economy Forward. In the case of Estonia, however, it undoubtedly did do so. Historically, from 1995 until 2012, Estonia GDP Growth Rate averaged 11.6%, reaching an all time high of 4.80 Percent in March of 2000 and a record low of -5.90 Percent in December of 2008. The Estonian Economy began recovering at the start of 2009. Funnily enough, Government Spending began to kick in at the end of 2008, a month or two around the trough of the recession. Considering that Government initatives have a month or two to take effect, Estonia’s boom is more coordinated with a rise in Government Spending.

Second of all, Estonia is more export driven than any other Eurozone Economy, with 98% of it’s 2011 GDP coming from Exports of Goods and Services.This naturally means it is more dependent on foreign demand than any other of its European neighbors. One can conclude that largest catalyst that made these austerity measures work, was Estonian’s willingness to take on the hard measures needed to adopt these “belt-tightening” policies. For example, civil servants in Estonia took a 10% pay cut and ministers aswell saw 20% of their income cut. Pension age was raised, benefits cut, and job protection reduced, which points out that Estonia has unanimously accepted that times of lavish spending has finished, even the finance minister of Estonia has said that the people “understood they had to give up something”.

By Amogh Sahu & Frederick Jordaan at http://ibej.blogspot.co.uk/

Was the Euro Doomed from the Start? (Essay from my graduation year of university last year)


The European Union (EU), an economic union between 27 member states in Europe, has recently suffered its first serious setback since its creation, termed as the “Euro Crisis”. Various members of the eurozone have been found to have serious debt problems which have affected the rest of the EU as they all share a single currency, the euro. But as Verhofstadt (2011), the former Belgian prime minister said “A state can exist without a currency, but a currency cannot exist without a state”. In this essay, I will discuss whether the euro was in fact doomed from the start from structural and unforeseen problems. First a short history of the euro will fill in any background information for this essay. Then the problems that will be considered are; the monetary policy problems, fiscal policy problems, a lack of preparation for any crisis, the lack of a real political union and a lack of equality throughout the EU. I will also explain reasons why the EU has been beneficial to its members including; the growth experienced before the crisis and the safety net the EU provided for the now failing economies in eurozone. The Mundell Fleming model will also be used to help show the different effects of both fiscal and monetary policies.

The euro first came into existence in 1999, though the physical representation of the money wasn’t fully circulated until 2002. Important institutions for the EU are; the European Commission, the European Council, the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Central Bank which decide important decisions within the EU like legislation, European law and interest rates for the eurozone. Entry into the EU was regulated by the Maastricht treaty which stated any nation that wished to enter must pass certain fiscal criteria; inflation must not be 1.5% higher than the average of the three best performers, the budget deficit must not exceed 3% of GDP, government debt to GDP ratio must not rise above 60%, long term interest rates could not be 2% higher than the three lowest members and the applicant should have mirrored the domestic currency to the euro for two years without devaluating currency. Greece famously did not originally meet these criteria and weren’t allowed to join until later on, while the UK and Denmark decided against adopting the euro currency. In 2004, the eurozone expanded to include smaller nations like Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and then in 2007 Bulgaria and Romania. Out of these nations only Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia and Estonia adopted the euro currency, while the other nations faced difficulties adjusting. Then in 2007/2008 there was a global financial crisis that pushed the eurozone into its first official recession in the third quarter of 2008, experiencing negative growth in the second, third and fourth quarters of 2008 and then into the first quarter of 2009. Greece suffered a crisis in confidence as international creditors started to doubt their ability to repay the huge debts they had acquired; with the debt to GDP ratio at a staggering 159% of GDP. This meant the eurozone countries along with the IMF had to bail out the country for the first time in May 2010, totalling €110 billion. This was followed by a second bailout this year of another €130 billion to help the country finance itself, while other countries like Ireland have also had to be bailed out. This has lead to a new European Fiscal Compact to be created that enforces nations to adhere to fiscal stability. This states that national budgets must either be in balance or surplus, otherwise punishments of fines of 0.1% of GDP and the loss of some of the countries fiscal sovereignty can be used.

The first fundamental problem with the euro was that it was expected a single monetary policy for all the countries would work. The monetary policy, which controls the supply of money into a country by targeting interest rates, is controlled by the European Central Bank (ECB) in the eurozone. This means every country in the eurozone has to operate under the same interest rates, despite the massive differences between the economies of the central countries (Germany, France) and the periphery countries (Greece, Spain). Andre Szasz, a retired Dutch central banker, supports this argument, suggesting it was a mistake to have “a monetary policy of one size fits all” as interest rates will be “too low” for some countries and “too high” for others.  This makes sense, as a country like Germany which produces a lot would be inclined to target low interest rates while a country like Greece which doesn’t produce enough would have higher interest rates. This led to the periphery states like Spain, Portugal and Greece being able to exploit the low interest rates that would not have been possible without being part of the euro. These low interest rates meant poorer countries could borrow money easily from international investors, not a big problem by itself, but when mixed with low productivity it encouraged nations to spend more money than they were making. This has lead to these nations building up vast amounts of debt that they cannot realistically pay back and with the financial crisis making credit scarce, these countries are finding it hard to obtain the loans they once found easy, with Portugal, Ireland and Greece being given junk credit status by credit rating agencies. This mass borrowing by the periphery nations (and Ireland) was good news for the central countries, especially Germany, as it meant new possible customers for their exports financed using money loaned from the richer nations like Germany: A vicious cycle. Zemanek (2010) supports this stating “Germany has experienced rising trade surpluses against the euro area countries starting from 2002 up to the recent crisis… other countries have large current account deficits, thereby accumulating increasing stocks of international debt”.

Bayumi and Eichengreen (1992) argued that the European monetary union could not be an optimum currency union. An optimum currency union is a region where a single currency would maximise economic efficiency, satisfying the criteria of; labour mobility, capital mobility, price and wage flexibility, fiscal transfers and similar business cycles. It is argued that the eurozone does not have price and wage flexibility, fiscal transfers or labour flexibility. Issing (2000) supported the lack of this last quality, arguing “dangers can be identified relatively easily. The most obvious one is the lack of flexibility in the labour union… this poses an almost lethal threat to monetary union”. A single monetary policy also meant individual countries couldn’t de-value their currency by printing. When the financial crisis hit, countries like the UK and USA were able to devalue their currency by printing more money, this helps boost exports and stop imports and can be an important tool in restructuring a countries economy. But countries like Greece and Portugal within the EU don’t have that option and therefore the only way to restructure their economy is through internal austerity; cutting wages and spending.  The Federal Union (2011) wrote “British government borrowing grew from 29.7% of GDP in 2002 to 36.5% in 2008… Since August 2007, the pound has lost 20 percent of its value against the euro”  showing the UK was fiscally irresponsible as well, but that they had the ability to de-value their currency and boost exports and therefore not have to adhere to severe austerity policies like their EU counterparts.

The second fundamental problem of the euro was the fiscal policy of the EU. In contrast to the monetary policy of the EU, each nation has a separate fiscal policy which leaves a very mixed economic structure for the EU. The fiscal policy refers to the government expenditure (e.g. new roads) and the collection of revenue (taxes) which affects the economy of the country. White (2011) suggested that it was “impossible to completely separate fiscal policy from monetary policy as central banks can prop up government bond prices by monetising debt” meaning the central banks of countries can buy up the debt of the country (though it is illegal to directly buy the debt, it can easily be bypassed) to help increase the supply of money, therefore affecting the monetary policy.

The Mundell-Fleming model (an adaptation on the IS-LM model) helps shows the relationship between a country’s interest rates, output and nominal exchange rates. The model argues that a country cannot simultaneously achieve a fixed exchange rate, free capital movement and an independent monetary policy. The EU for example has flexible exchange rates and instead decides to target interest rates and free capital movement. The model shows; the IS curve: Output = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports, the LM curve: Money supply/Price = Liquidity preference (Interest rates, Output) and the Balance of Payments curve: Current accounts (Net Exports) + Capital accounts (Cash Flow). The EU uses flexible exchange rates, which means the European Central Bank allows exchange rates to be determined by market forces alone. With flexible exchanges rates, the central bank can increase the supply of money to try and boost the economy (Monetary change). This causes the LM curve to shift to the right, thereby increasing output and lowering the domestic interest rate in comparison to the global interest rate. This depreciates the local currency, making local goods more attractive and thereby increasing net exports. Increasing net exports shifts the IS curve to the right as well, up until the point where the balance of payment is equal again and the domestic exchange rate equals the global interest rate. But while this returns to normal, the GDP increases once again, meaning any increase in the money supply doesn’t have an effect on interest rates in the long term, but does increase the GDP of the country and vice versa for a decrease in the supply of money. The European Central Bank increases money supply through Quantitative easing, where it prints more euros for all the countries to help boost the economies that are underperforming. Too much quantitative easing can be bad for the economy, leading to a poorer standard of living, bad reputation with foreign markets and even the risk of hyperinflation, while the ECB has to try and balance out whether quantitative easing would benefit all the countries in the eurozone. Another option with flexible exchange rates is to increase government spending (fiscal change), this causes the IS curve shifts to the right, causing an increase in GDP and in the domestic interest rates compared to global interest rates. This leads to the currency appreciating, making foreign goods more appealing and decreasing net exports. This shifts the IS curve back to its original position where domestic interest rates are equal to global interest rates and has no impact on the LM curve. This means if there is perfect capital mobility, then an increase in government spending has no impact on GDP and vice versa with cuts in spending. This shows that both the fiscal and monetary policy are integrated and cannot just be separated like the EU have tried to do with the euro.

A fiscal change with floating exchange rates graph shows what happens when government spending is increased (or taxes are decreased). A monetary expansion with floating exchange rates shows what happens when the supply of money is increased.

The EU also had to make an assumption that with interest rates fixed and a single currency, each country would be fiscally responsible. That assumption was proven badly wrong, as a lot of countries used low interest rates to borrow irresponsibly without having the output to support such loans and built up uncontrollable amounts of debt. Marian Tupy (Legatum Institute) argued that “Greece’s membership in the eurozone allowed the Greek government to borrow at lower interest rates, and thereby enabled its overspending” showing the allure the EU created for poorer nations to borrow beyond their means.  A new fiscal compact has recently been agreed between the countries in Europe (as described previously), with the UK and Czech Republic notably opting out of the treaty, which has the aim of stopping states running huge debts. This new fiscal compact shows an original problem with the structure of the EU, that regulation of fiscal activity in the eurozone was too relaxed. Dominguez (2006) came to this conclusion in her paper, writing “In 2000, one year after the euro was launched, five of the eleven countries in the eurozone were in violation of the public debt rule”, she then added “In 2005, the three largest eurozone economies – France, Germany and Italy – were out of compliance with both the budget deficit and public debt rules”.

Another fundamental problem with the euro was that it seemed totally unprepared for a crisis. As the Economist captured perfectly “the designers of the good ship euro wanted to create the greatest liner of the age. But as everybody knows, it was fit only for fair-weather sailing, with an anarchic crew and no life boats”. The European central banks main purpose was to keep inflation low, not deal with any potential credit problems which it had neither the financial nor political power to accomplish.  David Cameron (British Prime Minister) argued that successful currency unions have a lender of last resort, fiscal transfers, collective debt, economic integration and flexibility to deal with shocks, suggesting “currently it’s not that the eurozone doesn’t have all of these, it’s that it doesn’t have any of these”. Looking at the EU structure, it is easy to see what he is saying; countries are unable to transfer funds to struggling regions (e.g. Germany couldn’t transfer funds to Greece), debt is split unequally between different countries despite all using the same monetary policy, economies are kept largely separate with trade barriers still existing and there is absolutely no flexibility to deal with shocks as the financial crisis showed. Stelzer (2012) wrote ”Nor does Europe have a seamless method of transferring income from flush to stricken areas. America does: cash flows automatically to troubled states with falling tax receipts and rising welfare costs, from states doing better” which shows the one reason how America have been able to bounce back faster than the eurozone, because they have been able to transfer funds to poorer regions and have spread the debt collectively over all the states. But the most important of these factors is arguably having a lender of last resort, some sort of institution that can bail out the government if they can’t pay its debt. The USA has this in the form of the Federal Reserve, which can provide funds for any of the states if they require it. One of the main problems of the euro crisis was a lack of liquidity; this should have been the role of the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort. Instead the EU had a rule of no bail outs, relying on markets to keep a government from acting fiscally irresponsible, which has now backfired as the EU has hurriedly created a rescue fund to help solve a liquidity time bomb. The rescue fund created has little use however as it is massively underfunded, unable to bail-out a country the size of Italy for example. Without the ability to bail out countries, the EU could break up, a topic politically avoided. Ulrike Guerat of the European Council on foreign relations expresses fear in his paper that rather like the Soviet Union, the EU would go down quickly if the euro started to break up, showing a general worry that if a country like Greece (in the worst condition in the eurozone) defaults on its debt and leaves the euro, it could have a domino effect on the rest of the EU, with Portugal and Ireland very vulnerable to any shocks in the market.

An additional structural problem with the euro was that there wasn’t a political union. George Soros (2011) stated “the euro is a flawed construct “by which he meant the euro needed a stronger political union behind it. He then went on to suggest a single-pan European Union welfare state would allow for the creation of one fiscal and monetary policy for all of Europe. The EU faces constant bickering from different members over different policies, and struggles to achieve a united front at times. One such example was with foreign policy, where the UK and France agreed to intervene in the conflict in Libya, while Germany decided against joining in, showing that a conflict in interests can divide the eurozone. The United States of America is a good body to compare the European Union to as it shows the difference of being united politically. The Economist supports this argument, stating “America created political union followed by a fiscal union. But Europe is doing things backwards, creating the euro in hope of fostering political union”. EU policy has long been seen as being dominated by the central nations, with Germany suggested as having a lot of sway in the decision making process. This has stemmed from EU policy benefitting Germany before the crisis; as a weak currency meant they could export their goods more easily and low inflation was suggested to be focused on strongly because of German fear of hyperinflation, indeed the European Central Bank’s main policy is to control inflation.  This has been resented by the periphery nations which feel they are not represented in EU policies. The EU parliament has long been an institution with little power, with the economist describing it well, suggesting they measure “themselves against America’s congress without having its means” meaning that unlike Congress, they have little sway in uniting different countries inside the eurozone and although it can decide how to spend the EU money, it cannot dictate how it is raised. The EU parliament gained mores powers in 2009 after the Lisbon Treaty to monitor national budgets but any decisions have to be debated between two other bodies; the European Commission and the Council of Ministers while all the major topics like education and health are decided by national governments. This sort of system keeps the different nations separate and makes decision making a long and tedious process. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has spoken of a potential “political union” for the EU with a strong parliament, showing the lack of one originally has been realised as a mistake by the leading figures of the EU.

The final structural problem found with the euro was the lack of equality throughout the EU. There is a vast difference between the economies of the central nations and the economies of the periphery nations. Germany has been a highly competitive saving nation since the euro’s creation whiles the “PIIGS” countries (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) were the complete opposite; uncompetitive in production and too reliant on credit to finance themselves. This meant the capital flowing into these countries created a wage boom which saw wage growth rise above productivity growth, while Germany’s wage growth remained moderate meaning they could remain competitive over their rivals. A rigid labour market meant that when the financial crisis hit, real wages couldn’t adjust quickly enough in the periphery states, which coupled with an inability to devalue their currency led to a deep recession for these countries. Rogoff (2012) argued that the lack of labour mobility in the euro was a big problem, suggesting “if intra-eurozone mobility were anything like Mundell’s ideal, today we would not be seeing 25% unemployment in Spain while Germany’s unemployment rate is below 7%” meaning the eurozone is not one of Mundell’s optimal currency areas. Zemanek (2010) produced some facts, saying “while Germany and Austria broadly kept unit labour costs at the level of 1999. In Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands unit labour costs have increased significantly – by up to 30% compared with 1999” showing how competitive Germany had become compared with most other countries. This inequality throughout the eurozone has destabilised the EU, leading to hugely contrasting current accounts; with Germany having a big surplus and Greece having a large deficit.

We can use the idea of an optimal allocation to show the problems with inequality in the eurozone. An allocation (consumption of an individual in an economy) is only an optimal allocation if it is both efficient and equitable. We can judge efficiency by using the idea of Pareto efficiency: that no-one can be better off without making another individual worse off. A lot of allocations can be pareto efficient but still be unfair however, for example if one person has 7 apples and another 3 this would be considered pareto efficient. To make the allocation equitable, it needs to maximise social welfare (benefit society). A good model to show this is the Utilitarian model, which shows an economy of two individuals, where a UPF curve shows the pareto efficient utilities of both consumers and the social welfare function curve shows the point on the previous curve where the allocation is both pareto efficient and equitable. In the case of the EU, the redistribution of endowments in the market is the responsibility of the EU government and they haven’t done this effectively, as the imbalances between different countries shows. Germany is highly productive, export more than they import and have high employment, this is in contrast with Greece where they import more than they export, have high unemployment and have low productivity. The EU needs to fix these sorts of problems, where jobs are available in some areas of the eurozone and non-existent in others. They could do this by producing more public sector jobs in areas that have low unemployment or improving infrastructure to attract private industry, but this will be hard as countries in the eurozone still have individual governments (not in the EU’s power) and political mistrust between countries will interfere in the sharing of resources e.g. Germany are unlikely to agree with strengthening their rivals in the market. A more unified European Union, as discussed in earlier points, in the shape of a real political union could help different countries become more equal in the EU.

Map showing the different debt to GDP ratios of the countries in the eurozone. This shows the contrasting levels of debt in the eurozone; with Greece, Italy, Portugal and Ireland in much worse positions than France and Germany. This inequality is bad for the EU and a collective measure of the debt would help sort out these issues. (Economist, 2011).

However, it cannot be said that the euro was all bad. Most of the countries that joined the EU experienced big growth in the period up to the crisis. Yannos Papantoniou (2011) found that in the years 1999-2008 compared to 1989-1998, the eurozone countries experienced; 1% lower unemployment, 1.1% lower inflation and GDP growth of at least 5% each year (excluding 2003). The periphery nations like Spain and Greece experienced big economic growth (with Greece growing larger than the eurozone in 2003) which has seen their standard of living for their people improve greatly. During this period life was good for those nations, despite it being financed by debt, and their business sectors and infrastructure were upgraded in the process.  Having the same currency also meant countries could trade with each other much easier without the need for different exchange rates. The euro has benefited businesses in Germany and France (whose main customers were in Europe) and tourism for countries like Greece and Spain (whose economies rely on this sector) as there were no longer any transaction costs for each country and made prices in each country relatively equal and transparent. Also it is comparable to look at Iceland who possesses a single currency and has had troubles with volatile exchange rates due to changes in the market. This shows the problems that each country could still be facing if they hadn’t been part of the euro; highly vulnerable to any changes in the world market like rises in oil prices or commodity prices. Papantoniou (2011) supports this stating “the growth of output seems to have been stabilised in the euro area since the end of the 1990’s. Although the eurozone has not been the only area enjoying this decline in volatility of output growth, the convergence of economic policies of the eurozone countries coupled with a steady monetary policy of the ECB in its response to major events, such as the global economic downturn in the early 2000’s”. By employing data over 1982-2002, De Sousa and Lochard (2005) found that the euro has raised flows of foreign direct investment within the euro area by 62%.

Another benefit of the euro has been the safety net that each nation in the eurozone now possesses. Since the euro crisis, Greece and Ireland have had to be bailed out by the EU and IMF, this wouldn’t have happened had they not been part of this union that they can fall back on. The EU can’t afford to let any nation default as it could trigger a domino effect, so all the countries in the eurozone will continue to help bailout any countries in need to stop another crisis. Also, though countries like the UK do have the option of de-valuing their currency that members of the euro don’t have, it does have negative effects. The Federal Union website supports this stating “devaluation leads to reduced living standards, higher inflation and creditors deprived of full repayments abroad” with the last factor leading to countries losing their credible reputation with foreign investors. White (2011) reiterated this stating “For the citizens of an open economy who want to enjoy cross-border trade and investment, and want to have a trustworthy currency, the option of their central bank to devalue carries a near zero or even negative value, while the benefits of membership in a common currency area are important and positive”. He went on to suggest “The euro has so far held its value better than the drachma or the lira or the peseta used to” meaning the countries in the eurozone could have been much worse off had they not shared a currency and seen their economies lose their value. Tilford (2012) suggests that the EU compares favourably with its rivals, stating “Eurozone members as a whole … have a lower budget deficit than the US and the United Kingdom, and a similar level of public debt. Unlike the US and the UK, the eurozone in aggregate is running a current-account surplus” though the problem is whether to perceive the EU as a single organism or a host of multiple countries. The economist also found that “Prior to the crisis, Italy’s government was running a primary surplus and bringing down its debt-to-GDP ratio. So long as markets were prepared to finance Italy’s old debt at low rates, it was in good shape. Now, of course, markets aren’t prepared to do that” showing not all the nations now in trouble were spending outrageously, it’s just that once markets were spooked it effected some fragile economies in the eurozone like Italy. The European Central Bank also managed to keep its inflation rates at low levels throughout the euro (at around 2%), an important step in making sure a problem of hyperinflation didn’t spread through the eurozone.

In conclusion, the euro has some fundamental problems that need to be solved if it is to survive. The first two problems are interlinked, as the EU cannot have one monetary policy and multiple fiscal policies. The EU will need to either centralise the fiscal policy of the eurozone, giving more power to the EU parliament over taxes/government spending or give up some of its power over monetary policy and allow countries to print their own euros with some sort of maximum limit in place. The first choice seems the most likely as the EU continues along a current path of greater unification (bailing out countries to keep the EU in existence) and this could result in Eurobonds, as a way of reducing borrowing costs for each country and creating a safer asset for the EU. The current structure of the EU has political fractures between different governments, as countries fight for their own interests, this will need to be sorted by giving more power to the EU parliament and getting rid of current trade barriers between nations. The vast inequality will need to be treated too, as contrasting statistics between central and periphery states (budget deficits, current accounts) will continue to split the EU. A solution could be to have a system like that in USA where the richer states can transfer funds to the poorer states; this is basically in use now in the eurozone as countries like Germany and France are being forced to bail-out their neighbours. The last fundamental problem of having no preparation for a crisis is already being resolved, as the recent Euro Crisis has caused countries to stop either living fiscally irresponsibly (Greece) or to stop relying on certain  markets (Spain too reliant on construction market). There is also more regulation over fiscal activity and bank credit, which was badly missing from the original set up and encouraged nations to live beyond their means. The euro did allow growth in poorer regions of Europe, but this was financed by easy debt. While the safety net it now provides relies on the belief that the countries footing the bill will continue to decide the costs of bail outs outweigh the costs of a breakup of the euro. Instead there should already be a lender of last resort set up, the European Central Bank for instance, which can help out any country and already have been financed by years of savings from each country. These points add up to suggest the euro was in fact doomed from the start due to innate problems in its structure and the only way it can survive in its current form will be through reforms in its monetary and fiscal policy and its political unity.

PERFECTLY EFFICIENT MARKET HYPOTHESIS


 

 

 Key Idea:

“To be a “master of the Market” you need to look past the immediate effects of major upheavals and fluctuations, and look at their secondary and tertiary effects.” The efficient market hypothesis says, as accepted, that the price of an asset always perfectly reflects the value of that asset.  The idea is that all the information about an asset–public and private–gets translated into market activity, which is a kind of revelation of the asset’s real value.  It’s an elegant, if contentious, theory, that in some way illustrates the intrinsic value and organic nature of the market. The efficient-market hypothesis was developed by Professor Eugene Farma at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business as an academic concept of study through his published Ph.D. thesis in the early 1960s at the same school.

Examples:

When Lebron James, arguably one of the best basketball players of all times, became a free agent, his next move was one of high anticipation, and one that was obviously reflected in the world markets. It is an amusing story to hear that when it became rumored that Lebron James was going to sign with the New York Knicks, it drove up the stock price of Madison Square Garden (MSG) (New York Knicks stadium) up by 6.4%.

http://mrhonner.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/lebron-stock.jpg

As we can see above it is a clear example of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.When someone finds out a secret (Lebron is signing with the Knicks), realizes the financial consequences (tens, if not hundreds, of millions more in revenue for MSG), realizes MSG stock is under-valued, and buys a bunch; other people see this and jump on the bandwagon.  At some point, the stock price levels off at its true value. As we can see in the graph above the price of MSG skyrocketed. However as Lebron signed for the Miami Heat only 3 days after, again the same principle happened, resulting in a drop in the share price of the New York Knicks Stadium.

However there have been some counter-examples:

Remember Chernobyl? When news broke that the Soviet nuclear reactor had exploded, Alexander called. Only minutes before, confirmation of the disaster had blipped across our Quotron machines, yet Alexander had already bought the equivalent of two supertankers of crude oil. The focus of investor attention was on the New York Stock Exchange, he said. In particular it was on any company involved in nuclear power. The stocks of those companies were plummeting. Never mind that, he said. He had just purchased, on behalf of his clients, oil futures. Instantly in his mind less supply of nuclear power equaled more demand for oil, and he was right. His investors made a large killing. Mine made a small killing. Minutes after I had persuaded a few clients to buy some oil, Alexander called back.

File:Chernobyl Disaster.jpg

“Buy potatoes,” he said. “Gotta hop.” Then he hung up.

Of course. A cloud of fallout would threaten European food and water supplies, including the potato crop, placing a premium on uncontaminated American substitutes. Perhaps a few folks other than potato farmers think of the price of potatoes in America minutes after the explosion of a nuclear reactor in Russia, but I have never met them.

Yet if Alexander believed in perfectly efficient markets, he would not have bothered, instead figuring that the market had beaten him to it.  So almost 50 years after the efficient capital markets hypothesis, it’s still a hypothesis.  We don’t really know what drives securities prices.  But one thing we do know: the markets are very hard to beat and as John Maynard Keynes once commented, “Markets can remain irrational far longer than you or I can remain solvent.

By 

For more http://ibej.blogspot.be/

2013 Economic Trends


2013 is set to be a crucial year for a lot of countries, with Obama starting a tough second term at loggerheads with the Republicans over the Fiscal cliff, Europe implementing a set of reforms that could spark the end of the Euro crisis and China’s new leaders hinting at political reform in a economy that could overtake America in a few years. But some more important long term trends are also starting to take effect, which could change how the world economy works.

Hu Jintao’s new reign as the leader of China has sparked talk of political reform. 

One sector where big change is taking place is in manufacturing, where the location and tools are set to transform. For the latter the trend over the last decade has been for manufacturing jobs in the West to be outsourced to China. The Chinese labour force were willing to work for a fraction of their Western counterparts salaries, boasted colossal human capital and had a very underrated infrastructure that allowed for such goods to be transported quickly and efficiently. This helped fuel China’s lightning growth which has seen it transform from a developing country to a developed country in record time. But this has also seen a middle class emerge in China that has new demands. More emphasis now needs to be placed on the service sector for the economy to keep expanding at the same pace, as China’s grip on manufacturing is no longer as tight as it once was. Wages in the sector have been rising in the country, at around 20% a year, while China’s currency that had for so long been artificially kept weak, has been allowed to appreciate in the last few years. It now faces competition from its regional neighbours, as Vietnam and Bangladesh boast low cost workers waiting to be exploited by firms. But these countries don’t possess the same supply lines and pure number of workers as China, making them less serious rivals. Instead China’s biggest rival now lies below its biggest customer. Mexico is an attractive option for firms with its competitive costs (lower than China’s), large supply of workers and close proximity to America. The nation has come a long way, improving its infrastructure and enforcing its laws to a much higher degree than it did a decade ago. Of the $19.4 billion it gained in foreign direct investment in 2011, around half was gained in the manufacturing sector, while it has become the second largest supplier of electronic goods to the USA. HSBC even predicts that Mexico will overtake China and Canada as the biggest exporters to the USA by 2018. So next time you buy a product, you might not be surprised to see it originated in El Mexico.

Mexico’s PMI – which measures manufacturing output e.g anything over 50 is an increase and anything under is a decrease – has increased impressively over the last year. 

The second big change to the manufacturing sector which could kick off this year is the much heralded 3D printing. The ability to replicate products without fault could dramatically change the manufacturing sector just like robotic machinery once did. It could displace a lot of workers, as the need for humans to graft products would no longer be needed. Instead there would only be a need for employees who could operate the 3D printers, reducing the labour force considerably. That would have the knock on effect of reducing the need for out-sourcing (already on the wane) as the cost of manufacturing products would no longer depend on the wages of the local population. Instead it would make far more sense for 3D printing factories to be established in the home markets of the Western world, so that goods could be delivered fast and have access to modern technology far easier. The “ink” needed could also be very cheap for some products, as old products could be recycled to create the base materials for the 3D printed objects. While printing unique products for different customers would be rather easy, allowing for more artistic licence without the usual added costs. Alas, 3D printing is not yet ready for mass production, while some products would indeed remain cheaper to make from scratch rather than printing copied versions. But this could be the year it kicks off, as most of the ingredients are ready for factories to start trialing 3D printing in producing goods. 2013 might be the year where replicating products was proved to be viable and yet another nail in the coffin for the 20th century manufacturing techniques.

The final economic trend for 2013 will be the battle between austerity and stimulus that has been building up since the financial crisis. Stimulus packages were the order of the day initially after the crisis to help economies lift themselves out of recession. But austerity then took over as governments looked to try and gain control over their inflated debts and deficits. Nowhere more than Europe has austerity been so devoutly defended, with Germany and the EU enforcing tough austerity measures upon the countries that received bailouts. This has had mixed success though, with Greece clearly in need of controlling its debts, but the likes of Spain actually rather in control of its finances until it started to implement poorly thought out austerity measures. At the end of the year, one of bailed out nations, Ireland will return to the bonds markets, after managing to return to a current account surplus and get its economy growing in 2011 and 2012. Ireland remain the model case for Austerity in Europe; after requiring a bailout in 2010, they have implemented tough austerity measures and repaired their economy (despite a still high budget deficit), so a return to the bond market would help prove austerity works when implemented well. But they remain the only working example right now, with most countries contracting badly from austerity measures, with Spain still not expected to exit recession this year. On the other hand, some countries have turned to stimulating their economy instead, banking that the resulting uplift in the economy will outweigh the debt added and help pay it off in the long run. For example Japan have recently announced a stimulus package equivalent to $116 billion, to try and lift the economy out of recession by spending government money on improving the country’s infrastructure; which provides jobs and also attracts businesses to the country. Critics suggest the money won’t be spent efficiently, while the stimulus package will only add to Japan’s considerable debt, already at 200% of GDP. But they aren’t the only country that have thought to spend their way out of their debts, with China and Brazil both launching stimulus packages last year to help reignite their economies after falling world demand for their exports. Maybe the best example to use is the USA, who largely ignored their considerable debt during Barack Obama’s first term (actually adding trillions of dollars onto it) but are now being forced to consider austerity. The looming fiscal cliff at the start of the year would have forced through considerable cuts in America budgets equal to 5% of their GDP, instead Obama and Congress were able to come to a short term solution to avoid such measures. But the debt ceiling must be re-negotiated soon and the long term problem of America’s rising medical costs must be dealt with sooner or later. This means America will be looking to implement austerity measures to help deal with their rising debt this year, probably with a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases if the democrats and republicans can ever agree. So if a conclusion is to be reached this year over Austerity or Stimulus in the battle to control countries debts, then America may be the deciding vote. If austerity can help America bring down its budget deficit and public debt, without tipping the economy into recession, then it might just snatch the win.

More talks like these are to be expected as America looks to battle its debts by enforcing austerity measures. 

 

2012 was an eventful year, containing the Olympics, the election Mr Hollande as France’s first Socialist President in decades, the election of Mr Morsi in Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood’s first big win in an election, the re-election of Mr Obama  in the USA and the first example of a private firm venturing into space in the form of SpaceX. 2013 will have a lot to live up to, but if these trends prove correct, then it could prove just as eventful (hopefully minus an apocalypse this year).

North Korea’s New Years Resolution


Kim Jong-un delivered a rare public speech on New Year’s Day, the first of its kind in 19 years. Among the usual calls for North Korea to remain a strong military power, there were also calls for North Korea to become an “economic giant” and signs that they could be looking to repair ties with neighbours, South Korea. This could be in the form of a much less restricted economy, which would allow for a lot more trade and investments to pour into the country. Recent reports in Germany are even suggesting that the regime have hired German economic and legal experts to help plan for an opening up of the economy. These reports have suggested North Korea will follow Vietnam’s model, with specific companies chosen for investment.

This seemed impossible only a few years ago under Kim Jong-un’s father (who passed away a year ago), as North Korea has been the most secluded country in the world. Its people are heavily controlled by the government; entry and exit from the country are extremely hard to come by, information is censored so much that the public knows little about the outside world and human right violations are common especially in the prison system. Alongside this the country is relatively broke, relying massively on the financial support of China and aid from South Korea and America to feed its people.

Leaving North Korea can prove a little tricky…

This is the where cynics are worried about Kim Jong-un’s motives. North Korea have made promises to stop nuclear weapon development in the past to help attain food aid from America, only to then renegade on said promises afterwards. North Korea are again in such a position with masses of their population starving, so critics are arguing Obama shouldn’t fall for such tricks again. To add insult to injury, North Korea launched a rocket on the 12 December to put a satellite in space, despite violating clear UN rules. The rocket showed the progress North Korea are making in creating Nuclear weapons, though there are no signs of the re-entry technology needed, let alone the capability to attach a nuclear bomb. Such actions betray the words of unity Kim Jong-un delivered in his New Years Speech.

North Korea’s missile range, as found on the Economist.

Yet the timing is good. Kim Jong-un has just completed his first year in power and looks a more passive figure than his father. He has the chance to change his countries fortunes and is still in the infancy of his reign, which is important because as times passes by the chances of Kim Jong-un changing the regime that so many deplore will diminish. Alongside this, South Korea has just elected a new president, the conservative female Park Geun-hye. This means the departure of Lee Myung-bak, who was a particularly hated figure in North Korea, and the start of a new more welcoming government in South Korea.  President Park’s stance has been a halfway point between optimism and pessimism, stating that her agenda is to start with some small projects between the two countries and then see how Kim Jong-un reacts. If he follows his own speech then more unity between the two countries could begin.

South Korea’s first female president makes it onto the Times Front cover. 

This would be extremely important to North Korea’s chances of success in opening up their economy, as its neighbours have been extraordinarily successful in expanding theirs. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the sixties, now they are ranked in the top 20. They are in fact the only nation to have gone from being a major recipient of aid to a major donor. If North Korea could gain access to such a lucrative market, then they could revolutionize their economy.

In 2011, South Korea were the 15th largest economy in the world in nominal GDP terms. 

If they needed a model to follow then they should look no further than Myanmar. The nation was in a similar situation to North Korea only a couple of years ago, with little hope for change in the future. But as quick as you click your fingers, Myanmar have begun dramatic reforms to their country; opening up their economy, relaxing press censorship and even freeing the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. These reforms have seen improved growth for Myanmar, with its leaders now aiming to triple GDP per capita by 2016. North Korea on the other hand saw GDP shrink by a half in the 90’s, with little or no recovery since. By opening up its economy, North Korea could see real growth just like Myanmar, which could help lift a large proportion of its people out of poverty over the long run.

This graph found at the Washington Post, shows South Korea improvement and North Korea’s stagnation in GDP per capita terms. 

Alas, this is just hopeful talk right now. If the north and south were ever to unite truly, it would cost the richer south a lot of money and time to integrate the deprived north – just look at the re-unification of Germany. While South Korea are more likely to be worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapon ambitions, with the two countries still technically at war and the country the most likely target of any attack. This makes Ms Park’s stance more understandable, as she remains cautious on fully accepting North Korea yet. For the same reasons America will remain weary to invest in North Korea if they did open up their economy, as the money could be directed into Nuclear Weapons development. All this also ignores the current UN sanctions on the country because of their continued violation of international rules. This puts the opening up of North Korea’s economy beyond just their control.

A New Year and a new leader could see the development of a new North Korea. But by continuing along the path to Nuclear Weapons, they could be shutting off the path for economic freedom.

Could Marijuana be an Economy’s Best Friend?


Could Marijuana be an Economy’s Best Friend?.

Very interesting take on Marijuana in America and its effect on the economy. I recommend reading it.

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