German Unification as Proto-Europe?

Here is the opening passage of a pamphlet published by the German central bank in 1900, on the 25th anniversary of its founding:

The newly established German Empire found in the organization of the coinage, paper money, and bank-note systems, an urgent and difficult task. Probably in no department of the entire national economic system were the disadvantages of the political disunion of Germany so clear…; in no economic department were greater advantages to be expected from a political union. 

Although the customs union (Zollverein) had happily united the greater part of Germany in a commercial union, similar attempts in monetary affairs had met with but modest success, and were absolutely fruitless in banking.  

The inconvenience most complained of was the multiplicity and variety of the different coinage systems (seven in all) in the different states, also the want of an adequate, regulated circulation of gold coins.

This is quoted in Goodhart’s Evolution of Central Banks. An additional motivation for establishing a German central bank, Goodhart notes, was to organize the national payment system. Before then, there had ben no Germany-wide clearinghouse for interbank settlement. When the Reichsbank (as it then was) opened branches throughout Germany, the purpose was not only to manage the money supply but to offer a new facility for long-distance payments.

(Goodhart’s larger themes are first, that central bank-like institutions develop organically within banking systems, whether or not they are established by law. And second, that the fusion of payment and intermediation functions that defines banks is a historical accident; banks as we know them needn’t, and he probably shouldn’t, be features of future financial systems. I am convinced on the first point, not so much on the second.)

What this passage makes me wonder is: Has anyone ever written about European integration in the light of German unification in the late 19th century? The claim in the Reichsbank pamphlet that customs union was the easy first step, and that monetary union followed only later and with difficulty, certainly suggests some parallels. So does the suggestion that monetary union was the biggest economic benefit of political union. It would be interesting to ask, what were the concrete problems that monetary union was understood to be solving? And how did it fit into the larger political agenda of German unification?

Of course there are fundamental differences — most importantly that German unification took place under the aegis of a sovereign political authority, whereas the central political-economic fact about Europe is that the monetary authority stands above the various national governments. But it still seems like the comparison could be illuminating.  

Wealth Distribution and the Puzzle of Germany

There’s been some discussion recently of the new estimates from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the distribution of household wealth in the US. Using the capital income reported in the tax data, and applying appropriate rates of return to different kinds of assets, they are able to estimate the distribution of household wealth holdings going back to the beginning of the income tax in 1913. They find that wealth inequality is back to the levels of the 1920s, with 40% of net worth accounted for the richest one percent of households. The bottom 50% of households have a net worth of zero.

There’s a natural reaction to see this as posing the same kind of problem as the distribution of income — only more extreme — and respond with proposals to redistribute wealth. This case is argued by the very smart Steve Roth in comments here and on his own blog. But I’m not convinced. It’s worth recalling that proposals for broadening the ranks of property-owners are more likely to come from the right. What else was Bush’s “ownership society”? Social Security privatization, if he’d been able to pull it off, would have  dramatically broadened the distribution of wealth. In general, I think the distribution of wealth has a more ambiguous relationship than the distribution of income to broader social inequality.

Case in point: Last summer, the ECB released a survey of European household wealth. And unexpectedly, the Germans turned out to be among the poorest people in Europe. The median German household reported net worth of just €50,000, compared with €100,000 in Greece, €110,000 in France, and €180,000 in Spain. The pattern is essentially the same if you look at assets rather than net worth — median household assets are lower in Germany than almost anywhere else in Europe, including the crisis countries of the Mediterranean.

At the time, this finding was mostly received in terms the familiar North-South morality tale, as one more argument for forcing austerity on the shiftless South. Not only are the thrifty Germans being asked to bail out the wastrel Mediterraneans, now it turns out the Southerners are actually richer? Why can’t they take responsibility for their own debts? No more bailouts!

No surprise there. But how do we make sense of the results themselves, given what we know about the economies of Germany and the rest of Europe? I think that understood correctly, they speak directly to the political implications of wealth distribution.

First, though: Did the survey really find what it claimed to find? The answer seems to be more or less yes, but with caveats.

Paul de Grauwe points out some distortions in the headline numbers reported by the ECB. First, this is a survey of household wealth, but, de Grauwe says, households are larger in the South than in the North. This is true, but it turns out not to make much of a difference — converting from household wealth to wealth per capita leaves the basic pattern unchanged.

Per capita wealth in selected European countries. From de Grauwe.

Second, the survey focuses on median wealth, which ignores distribution. If we look at the mean household instead of the median one, we find Germany closer to the middle of the pack — ahead of Greece, though still behind France, Italy and Spain. The difference between the two measures results from the highly unequal distribution of wealth in Germany — the most unequal in Europe, according to the ECB survey. For the poorest quintile, median net worth is ten times higher in Greece and in Italy than in Germany, and 30 times higher in Spain.

This helps answer the question of apparent low German wealth — part of the reason the median German household is wealth-poor is because household wealth is concentrated at the top. But that just raises a new puzzle. Income distribution Germany is among the most equal in Europe. Why is the distribution of wealth so much more unequal? The puzzle deepens when we see that the other European countries with high levels of wealth inequality are France, Austria, and Finland, all of which also have relatively equal income distribution.

Another distortion pointed to by De Grauwe is that the housing bubble in southern Europe had not fully deflated in 2009, when the survey was taken — home prices were still significantly higher than a decade earlier. Since Germany never had a housing boom, this tends to depress measured wealth there. This explains some of the discrepancy, but not all of it. Using current home prices, the median Spanish household has more than triple the net wealth of the median German household; with 2002 home prices, only double. But this only moves Germany up from the lowest median household wealth in Europe, to the second lowest.

The puzzle posed by the wealth survey seems to be genuine. Even correcting for home prices and household size, the median Spanish or Italian household reports substantially more net wealth than the median German one, and the median Greek household about an equal amount. Yet Germany is, by most measures, a much richer country, with median household income of €33,000, compared with €22,000, €25,000 and €26,000 in Greece, Spain and Italy respectively. Use mean wealth instead of median, and German wealth is well above Greek and about equal to Spanish, but still below Italian — even though, again, average household income is much higher in Germany than in Italy. And the discrepancy between the median and mean raises the puzzle of why German wealth distribution is so much more uneven than German income distribution.

De Grauwe suggests one more correction: look at the total stock of fixed capital in each country, rather than household wealth. Measuring capital consistently across countries is notoriously dicey, but on his estimate, Germany and the Netherlands have as much as three times the capital per head as the southern countries. So Germany is richer in real terms than the South, as we all know; the difference is just that “a large part of German wealth is not held by households and therefore must be held by the corporate sector.” Problem solved!

Except… you know, Mitt Romney was right: corporations are people, in the sense that they are owned by people. The wealth of German corporations should also show up as the wealth of the owners of German stocks, bonds, or other claims on those corporations — which means, overwhelmingly, German households. Indeed, in mainstream economic theory, the “wealth” of the corporate sector just is the wealth of the households that own it. According to de Grauwe, the per capita value of the capital stock is more than twice as large in Germany as in Spain. Yet the average financial wealth held by a German household is only 25% higher than in Spain. So as in the case of distribution, this solution to the net-wealth puzzle just creates a new puzzle: Why is a dollar of capital in a German firm worth so much less to its ultimate owners than a dollar of capital in a Spanish or Italian firm?

And this, I think, points us toward the answer, or at least toward the right question.

The question is, what is the relationship between the level of market production in an economy, and the claims on future production represented by wealth? It’s a truism — tho often forgotten — that the market production counted in GDP is only a part of all the productive activity that takes place in society. In the same way, not all market production is capitalized into assets. Wealth in an economic sense represents only those claims on future income that are exercised by virtue of a legal title that is freely transferable, and hence has a market value.

For example, imagine two otherwise similar countries, one of which makes provision for retirement income through a pay-as-you-go public pension system, and the other of which uses some form of funded pension. The two countries may have identical levels of output and income, and retirees may receive exactly the same payments in both. But because the assets held by the pension funds show up on balance sheets while the right to future public pension payments does not, the first country will have less wealth than the second one. Again, this does not imply any difference in production, or income, or who ultimately bears the cost of supporting retirees; it is simply a question of how much of those future payments are capitalized into assets.

This is just an analogy; I don’t think retirement savings are the story here. The story is about home ownership and the value of corporate stock.

First, home ownership. Only 44 percent of German households own their own homes, compared with 70-80 percent in Greece, Italy and Spain. Among both homeowners and non-homeowners considered separately, median household wealth is comparable in Germany and in the southern countries. It’s only the much higher proportion of home ownership that produces higher median wealth in the South. And this is especially true at the bottom end of the distribution — almost all the bottom quintile (by income) of German households are renters, whereas in Greece, Spain and Italy there is a large fraction of homeowners even at the lowest incomes. Furthermore, German renters have far more protections than elsewhere. As I understand it, German renters are sufficiently protected against both rent increases and loss of their lease that their occupancy of their home is not much less secure than that of home owners. These protections are, in a sense, a form of property right — they are a claim on the future flow of housing services in the same way that a title to a house would be. But with a critical difference: the protections from rent regulation can’t be sold, don’t show up on the household’s balance sheet, and do not get counted as wealth.

In short: The biggest reason that German household wealth is lower than than elsewhere is that less claims on the future output of the housing sector take the form of assets. Housing is just as commodified in Germany as elsewhere (I don’t think public housing is unusually important there). But it is less capitalized.

Home ownership is the biggest and clearest part of the story here, but it’s not the whole story. Correct for home ownership rates, use mean rather than median, and you find that German household wealth is comparable to household wealth in Italy or Spain. But given that GDP per capita is much higher in Germany, and the capital stock seems to be so much larger, why isn’t household wealth higher in Germany too?

One possible answer is that income produced in the corporate sector is also less capitalized in Germany.

In a recent paper with Zucman, Thomas Piketty suggests that the relationship between equity values and the real value of corporate assets depends on who exercises power over the corporation. Piketty and Zucman:

Investors who wish to take control of a corporation typically have to pay a large premium to obtain majority ownership. This mechanism might explain why Tobin’s Q tends to be structurally below 1. It can also provide an explanation for some of the cross-country variation… : the higher Tobin’s Q in Anglo-Saxon countries might be related to the fact that shareholders have more control over corporations than in Germany, France, and Japan. This would be consistent with the results of Gompers, Ishii and Metrick (2003), who find that firms with stronger shareholders rights have higher Tobin’s Q. Relatedly, the control rights valuation story may explain part of the rising trend in Tobin’s Q in rich countries. … the ”control right” or ”stakeholder” view of the firm can in principle explain why the market value of corporations is particularly low in Germany (where worker representatives have voting rights in corporate boards without any equity stake in the company). According to this ”stakeholder” view of the firm, the market value of corporations can be interpreted as the value for the owner, while the book value can be interpreted as the value for all stakeholders.

In other words, one reason household wealth is low in Germany is because German households exercise their claims on the business sector not via financial assets, but as workers.

The corporate sector is also relatively larger in Germany than in the southern countries, where small business remains widespread. 14 percent of Spanish households and 18 percent of Italian households report ownership of a business, compared with only 9 percent of German households. Again, this is a way in which lower wealth reflects a shift in claims on the social product from property ownership to labor.

It’s not a coincidence that Europe’s dominant economy has the least market wealth. The truth is, success in the world market has depended for a long time now on limiting dependence on asset markets, just as the most successful competitors within national economies are the giant corporations that suppress the market mechanism internally. Germany, as with late industrializers like Japan, Korea, and now China, has succeeded largely by ensuring that investment is not guided by market signals, but through active planning by banks and/or the state. There’s nothing new in the fact that greater real wealth in the sense of productive capacity goes hand hand with less wealth in the sense of claims on the social product capitalized into assets. Only in the poorest and most backward countries does a significant fraction of the claims of working people on the product take the form of asset ownership.

The world of small farmers and self-employed artisans isn’t one we can, or should, return to. Perhaps the world of homeowners managing their own retirement savings isn’t one we can, or should, preserve.

Demand and Competitiveness: Germany and the EU

I put up a post the other day about Enno Schroder’s excellent work on accounting for changes in trade flows. Based on the comments, there’s some confusion about the methodology. That’s not surprising: It’s not complicated, but it’s also not a familiar way of looking at this stuff, either within or outside the economics profession. Maybe a numerical example will help?

Let’s consider two trading partners, in this case Germany and the rest of the EU. (Among other things, having just two partners avoids the whole weighting issue.) The first line of the table below shows total demand in each — that is, all private consumption, government consumption, and investment — in billions of euros. (As usual, this is final demand — transfers and intermediate goods are excluded.) So, for instance, in the year 2000 all spending by households, firms and governments in Germany totaled 2.04 trillion euros. The next two lines show the part of that expenditure that went to imports — from the rest of the EU for Germany, from Germany for the rest of the EU, and from the rest of the world for both. The final two lines of each panel then show the share of total expenditure in each place that went to German and rest-of-EU goods respectively. The table looks at 2000 and 2009, a period of growing surpluses for Germany.

2000 2009
Germany Demand 2,041 2,258
Imports from EU 340 429
Imports from Rest of World 198 235
Germany Share 74% 71%
EU ex-Germany Share 17% 19%
EU ex-Germany Demand 9,179 11,633
Imports from Germany 387 501
Imports from Rest of World 795 998
Germany Share 4% 4%
EU ex-Germany Share 87% 87%
Ratio, Germany-EU Exports to Imports 1.14 1.17
EU Surplus, Percent of German GDP 2.27 3.02

So what do we see? In 2000, 74 cents out of every euro spent in Germany went for German goods and services, and 17 cents for goods and services from the rest of the EU. Nine years later, 71 cents out of each German euro went to German stuff, and 19 cents to stuff from the rest of the EU. German households, businesses and government agencies were buying more from the rest of Europe, and less from their own country. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe was spending 4 cents out of every euro on goods and services from Germany — exactly the same fraction in 2009 as in 2000.

If Germans were buying more from the rest of the EU, and non-German Europeans were buying the same amount from Germany, how could it be that the German trade surplus with the rest of Europe increased? And by nearly one percent of German GDP, a significant amount? The answer is that total expenditure was rising much faster in the rest of Europe — by 2.7 percent a year, compared with 1.1 percent a year in Germany. This is what it means to say that the growing German surplus is entirely accounted for by demand, and that Germany actually lost competitiveness over this period.

Again, these are not estimates, they are the actual numbers as reported by EuroStat. It is simply a matter of historical fact that Germans spent more of their income on goods from the rest of the EU, and less on German goods, in 2009 than in 2000, and that the rest of the EU spent the same fraction of its income on German goods in the two years. Obviously, this does not rule out the possibility that German goods were becoming cheaper relative to the rest of Europe’s, if you postulate some other factor that would have reduced Germany’s exports without a growing cost advantage. (This is not so easy, since Germany’s exports are the sort of high-end manufactures which usually have a high income elasticity, i.e. for which demand is expected to rise over time.) And it is also compatible with a story where German export prices fell, but export demand is price-inelastic, so that lower prices did nothing to raise export earnings. But it is absolutely not compatible with a simple story where the most important driver of German trade imbalances is changing relative prices. For that story to work, the main factor in Germany’s growing surpluses would have to have been expenditure switching from other countries’ goods to Germany’s. And that didn’t happen.

NOTE: This my table, not Enno’s. The data is from Eurostat, while he uses the Penn World Tables, and he does not look at intra-European trade specifically.

UPDATE: There’s another question, which no one asked but which you should always try to answer: Why does it matter? The truth is, a big reason I care about this is that I’m curious how capitalist economies work, and this stuff seems to shed some light on that, in terms of both the specific content  and the methodology. But more specifically:

First, seeing trade flows as driven by income as well as price fits better with a vision of economy that has many different possible states of rest. It fits better with a vision of economies evolving in historical time, rather than gravitating toward an equilibrium which is both natural and optimal. In this particular case, there is no reason to suppose that the relative growth rates consistent with full employment in each country are also the relative growth rates consistent with balanced trade. A world in which trade flows respond mainly to relative prices is a world where macropolicy doesn’t pose any fundamentally different challenges in an open economy than in a closed one. Whatever mechanisms operated to ensure full employment continue to do so, and then the exchange rate adjusts to keep trade flows balanced (or appropriately unbalanced, for a country with a good reason to export or import capital.) Whereas when the main relationship is between income and trade, they cannot vary independently.

Second, there are important implications for policy. Krugman keeps saying that Germany needs higher relative prices, i.e., higher inflation. Even leaving aside the political difficulties with such a program, it makes sense on its own terms only if there is a fixed pool of European demand. To say that the only way you can have an adequate level of demand in Greece is for prices to fall relative to Germany, is to accept, on a European or global level, the structural theory of unemployment that Krugman rejects so firmly (and rightly) for the US. By contrast if competitiveness didn’t cause the problem, we shouldn’t assume competitiveness is involved in the solution. The historical evidence suggests that more rapid income growth in Germany will be sufficient to move its current account back to balance. The implications for domestic demand in Germany are the opposite in this case as in the relative-prices case: Fixing the current account problem means more jobs and orders for German workers and firms, not  higher inflation in Germany. [1]

So if you buy this story, you should be more pessimistic about a Greek exit from the euro — since there’s less reason to think that flexible exchange rates will lead to balanced trade — but more optimistic about a solution within the euro.

I don’t understand why, for economists like Krugman and Dean Baker, Keynesianism always seems to stop at the water’s edge. Why does their analysis of international trade always implicitly [2] assume a world economy continually at full capacity, where a demand shortfall in one country or region implies excess demand somewhere else? They know perfectly well that the question of unemployment in one country cannot be reduced to the question of who is getting paid too much; why do they forget it as soon as exchange rates come into the picture? Perhaps it’s for the same reasons — whatever they are — that so many economists who support all kinds of domestic regulation are ardent supporters of free trade, even though that’s just laissez-faire at the global level. In the particular case of Krugman, I think part of the problem is that his own scholarly work is in trade. So when the conversation turns to trade he loses one of the biggest assets he brings to discussions of domestic policy — a willingness to forget all the “progress” in economic theory over the past 30 or 40 years.

[1] A more reasonable version of the higher-prices-in-Germany claim is that Germany must be willing to accept higher inflation in order to raise demand. In some times and places this could certainly be true. But I don’t think it is for Germany, given the evident slack in labor markets implied by stagnant wages. And in any case that’s not what Krugman is saying — for him, higher inflation is the solution, not an unfortunate side effect.

[2] Or sometimes explicitly — e.g. this post has Germany sitting on a vertical aggregate supply curve.

What Drives Trade Flows? Mostly Demand, Not Prices

I just participated (for the last time, thank god) in the UMass-New School economics graduate student conference, which left me feeling pretty good about the next generation of heterodox economists. [1] A bunch of good stuff was presented, but for my money, the best and most important work was Enno Schröder’s: “Aggregate Demand (Not Competitiveness) Caused the German Trade Surplus and the U.S. Deficit.” Unfortunately, the paper is not yet online — I’ll link to it the moment it is — but here are his slides.

The starting point of his analysis is that, as a matter of accounting, we can write the ratio of a county’s exports to imports as :

X/M = (m*/m) (D*/D)

where X and M are export and import volumes, m* is the fraction of foreign expenditure spent on the home country’s goods, m is the fraction of the home expenditure spent on foreign goods, and D* and D are total foreign and home expenditure.

This is true by definition. But the advantage of thinking of trade flows this way, is that it allows us to separate the changes in trade attributable to expenditure switching (including, of course, the effect of relative price changes) and the changes attributable to different growth rates of expenditure. In other words, it lets us distinguish the changes in trade flows that are due to changes in how each dollar is spent in a given country, from changes in trade flows that are due to changes in the distribution of dollars across countries.

(These look similar to price and income elasticities, but they are not the same. Elasticities are estimated, while this is an accounting decomposition. And changes in m and m*, in this framework, capture all factors that lead to a shift in the import share of expenditure, not just relative prices.)

The heart of the paper is an exercise in historical accounting, decomposing changes in trade ratios into m*/m and D*/D. We can think of these as counterfactual exercises: How would trade look if growth rates were all equal, and each county’s distribution of spending across countries evolved as it did historically; and how would trade look if each country had had a constant distribution of spending across countries, and growth rates were what they were historically? The second question is roughly equivalent to: How much of the change in trade flows could we predict if we knew expenditure growth rates for each country and nothing else?

The key results are in the figure below. Look particularly at Germany,  in the middle right of the first panel:

The dotted line is the actual ratio of exports to imports. Since Germany has recently had a trade surplus, the line lies above one — over the past decade, German exports have exceed German imports by about 10 percent. The dark black line is the counterfactual ratio if the division of each county’s expenditures among various countries’ goods had remained fixed at their average level over the whole period. When the dark black line is falling, that indicates a country growing more rapidly than the countries it exports to; with the share of expenditure on imports fixed, higher income means more imports and a trade balance moving toward deficit. Similarly, when the black line is rising, that indicates a country’s total expenditure growing more slowly than expenditure its export markets, as was the case for Germany from the early 1990s until 2008. The light gray line is the other counterfactual — the path trade would have followed if all countries had grown at an equal rate, so that trade depended only on changes in competitiveness. When the dotted line and the heavy black line move more or less together, we can say that shifts in trade are mostly a matter of aggregate demand; when the dotted line and the gray line move together, mostly a matter of competitiveness (which, again, includes all factors that cause people to shift expenditure between different countries’ goods, including but not limited to exchange rates.)
The point here is that if you only knew the growth of income in Germany and its trade partners, and nothing at all about German wages or productivity, you could fully explain the German trade surplus of the past decade. In fact, based on income growth alone you would predict an even larger surplus; the fraction of the world’s dollars falling on German goods actually fell. Or as Enno puts it: During the period of the German export boom, Germany became less, not more, competitive. [2] The cases of Spain, Portugal and Greece (tho not Italy) are symmetrical: Despite the supposed loss of price competitiveness they experienced under the euro, the share of expenditure falling on these countries’ goods and services actually rose during the periods when their trade balances worsened; their growing deficits were entirely a product of income growth more rapid than their trade partners’.
These are tremendously important results. In my opinion, they are fatal to the claim (advanced by Krugman among others) that the root of the European crisis is the inability to adjust exchange rates, and that a devaluation in the periphery would be sufficient to restore balanced trade. (It is important to remember, in this context, that southern Europe was running trade deficits for many years before the establishment of the euro.) They also imply a strong criticism of free trade. If trade flows depend mostly or entirely on relative income, and if large trade imbalances are unsustainable for most countries, then relative growth rates are going to be constrained by import shares, which means that most countries are going to grow below their potential. (This is similar to the old balance-of-payments constrained growth argument.) But the key point, as Enno stresses, is that both the “left” argument about low German wage growth and the “right” argument about high German productivity growth are irrelevant to the historical development of German export surpluses. Slower income growth in Germany than its trade partners explains the whole story.
I really like the substantive argument of this paper. But I love the methodology. There is an econometrics section, which is interesting (among other things, he finds that the Marshall-Lerner condition is not satisfied for Germany, another blow to the relative-prices story of the euro crisis.) But the main conclusions of the paper don’t depend in any way on it. In fact, the thing can be seen as an example of an alternative methodology to econometrics for empirical economics, historical accounting or decomposition analysis. This is the same basic approach that Arjun Jayadev and I take in our paper on household debt, and which has long been used to analyze the historical evolution of public debt. Another interesting application of this kind of historical accounting: the decomposition of changes in the profit rate into the effects of the profit share, the utilization rate, and the technologically-determined capital-output ratio, an approach pioneered by Thomas Weisskopf, and developed by others, including Ed WolffErdogan Bakir, and my teacher David Kotz.
People often say that these accounting exercises can’t be used to establish claims about causality. And strictly speaking this is true, though they certainly can be used to reject certain causal stories. But that’s true of econometrics too. It’s worth taking a step back and remembering that no matter how fancy our econometrics, all we are ever doing with those techniques is describing the characteristics of a matrix. We have the observations we have, and all we can do is try to summarize the relationships between them in some useful way. When we make causal claims using econometrics, it’s by treating the matrix as if it were drawn from some stable underlying probability distribution function (pdf). One of the great things about these decomposition exercises — or about other empirical techniques, like principal component analysis — is that they limit themselves to describing the actual data. In many cases — lots of labor economics, for instance — the fiction of a stable underlying pdf is perfectly reasonable. But in other cases — including, I think, almost all interesting questions in macroeconomics — the conventional econometrics approach is a bit like asking, If a whale were the top of an island, what would the underlying geology look like? It’s certainly possible to come up with a answer to that question. But it is probably not the simplest way of describing the shape of the whale.
[1] A perennial question at these things is whether we should continue identifying ourselves as “heterodox,” or just say we’re doing economics. Personally, I’ll be happy to give up the distinct heterodox identity just as soon as economists are willing to give up their distinct identity and dissolve into the larger population of social scientists, or of guys with opinions.
[2] The results for the US are symmetrical with those for Germany: the growing US trade deficit since 1990 is fully explained by more rapid US income growth relative to its trade partners. But it’s worth noting that China is not: Knowing only China’s relative income growth, which has been of course very high, you would predict that China would be moving toward trade deficits, when in fact it has ben moving toward surplus. This is consistent with a story that explains China’s trade surpluses by an undervalued currency, tho it is consistent with other stories as well.

A Greek Myth

Most days, I’m a big fan of Paul Krugman’s columns.

Unlike his economics, which makes a few too many curtsies to orthodoxy, his political interventions are righteous in tone, right-on in content, and what’s more, strategic — unlike many leftish intellectuals, he clearly cares about being useful — about saying things that are not only true, but that contribute to the concrete political struggle of the moment. He’s so much better than almost of his peers it’s not even funny.

But — well, you knew there had to be a but.

But this time, he’s gotten his economics in his politics. And the results are not pretty.

In today’s column, he rightly dismisses arguments that the root of the Euro crisis is that workers in Greece and the other peripheral countries are lazy, or unproductive, or that those countries have excessive regulation and bloated welfare states. “So how did Greece get into so much trouble?” he asks. His answer:

Blame the euro. Fifteen years ago Greece was no paradise, but it wasn’t in crisis either. Unemployment was high but not catastrophic, and the nation more or less paid its way on world markets, earning enough from exports, tourism, shipping and other sources to more or less pay for its imports. Then Greece joined the euro, and a terrible thing happened: people started believing that it was a safe place to invest. Foreign money poured into Greece, some but not all of it financing government deficits; the economy boomed; inflation rose; and Greece became increasingly uncompetitive.

I’m sorry, but the bolded sentence just is not true. The rest of it is debatable, but that sentence is flat-out false. And it matters.

The analysis behind the “earning enough” claim is found on Krugman’s blog. He writes,

One of the things you keep hearing about Greece is that if it exits the euro one way or another there will be no gains, because Greece basically can’t export — so structural reform is the only way forward. But here’s the thing: if that were true, how did Greece pay its way before the big capital flows starting coming? The truth is that before the euro and the capital flow bubble it created, Greece ran only small current account deficits (the broad definition of the trade balance, including services and factor income)

And he offers this graph from Eurostat:

The numbers in the graph are fine, as far as they go. And there is the first problem: how far they go. Here’s the same graph, but going back to 1980.

Starting the graph ten years earlier gives a different picture — now it seems that the near-balance on current account in 1993 and 1994 wasn’t the normal state before the euro, but an exceptional occurrence in just those two years. And note that that while Greek deficits in the 1980s are small relative to those of the mid-2000s, they are still very far from anything you could reasonably describe as “the country more or less paid its way.” They are, for instance, significantly larger than the contemporaneous US current account deficits that were a central political concern in the 1980s here.

That’s the small problem; there’s a bigger one. Because, what are we looking at? The current account balance. Krugman glosses this as “the broadest measure of the trade balance,” but that’s not correct. (If he taught undergraduate macro, I’m sure he’d mark someone writing that wrong.) It’s broad, yes, but it’s a different concept, covering all international payments other than asset purchases, including some (transfers and income flows) that are not trade by any possible definition. The current account includes, for example, remittances by foreign workers to their home countries. So by Krugman’s logic here, the fact that there are lots of Mexican migrant workers in the US sending money home is a sign that Mexico is able to export successfully to the US, when in the real world it’s precisely a sign that it isn’t.

Most seriously, the current account includes transfer between governments. In the European context these are quite large. To call the subsidies that Greece received under the European Common Agricultural Policy export earnings is obviously absurd. Yet that’s what Krugman is doing.

The following graph shows how big a difference it makes when you call development assistance exports.

The blue line is the current account balance, same as in Krugman’s graph, again extended back to 1980. The red line is the current account balance not counting intergovernmental transfers. And the green line is the current account not counting any transfers. [*] It’s clear from this picture that, contra Krugman, Greece was not earning enough money to pay for its imports before the creation of the euro, or at any time in the past 30 years. If the problem Greece has to solve is getting its foreign exchange payments in line with with its foreign exchange earnings, then the bulk of the problem existed long before Greece joined the euro. The central claim of the column is simply false.

Again, it is true that Greece’s deficits got much bigger in the mid-2000s. I agree with Krugman that this must have ben connected with the large capital flows from northern to peripheral Europe that followed the creation of the euro. It remains an open question, though, how much this was due to an increase in relative costs, and how much due to more rapid income growth. By assuming it was entirely the former, Krugman is implicitly, but characteristically, assuming that except in special circumstances economies can be assumed to be operating at full capacity.

But the key point is that the historical evidence does not support the view that current account imbalances only arise when governments interfere in the natural adjustment of foreign exchange markets. Fixed rates or floating, in the absence of very large flows of intergovernmental aid Greece has never come close to current account balance. According to Krugman, Greece’s

famous lack of competitiveness is a recent development, caused by massive post-euro inflows of capital that raised costs and prices. And that’s the kind of thing that currency devaluations can cure.

The historical evidence is not consistent with this claim. Or if it is, it’s only after you go well beyond normal massaging of the data, to something you’d see on The Client List.

* * *
So why does it matter? What’s at stake? I can’t very well go praising Krugman for writing not only what’s true but what is useful, and then justify a post criticizing him on the grounds of Someone Is Wrong On the Internet. No; but there’s something real at stake here.

The basic issue is, does price adjustment solve everything? Krugman won’t quite come out and say Yes, but clearly it’s what he believes. Is he being deliberately dishonest? No, I’m sure he’s not. But this is how ideology works. He’s committed to the idea that relative costs are the fundamental story when it comes to trade, so when he finds a bit of data that seems to conform to that, he repeats it, without giving five minutes of critical reflection to what it actually means.

The basic issue, again, is the need for structural as opposed to price adjustment. Now if “structural adjustment” means lower wages, then of course Godspeed to Krugman here. I’m against structural whatever in that sense too. But I can’t help feeling that he’s pulling in the wrong direction. Because if external devaluation cures the problem then internal devaluation does too, at least in principle.

The fundamental question remains how important are relative costs. The way I see it, look at what Greece imports, most of it Greece doesn’t produce at all. The textbook expenditure-switching vision implicitly endorsed by Krugman ignores that there are different kinds of goods, or accepts what Paul Davidson calls the axiom of gross substitution, that every good is basically (convexly) interchangeable with every other. Hey Greeks will have fewer computers and no oil, but they’ll spend more time at the beach, and in terms of utility it’s all the same. Except, you know, it’s not.

From where I’m sitting, the only way for Greece to achieve current account balance with income growth comparable to Germany is for Greece to develop new industries. This, not low wages,  is the structural problem. This is the same problem faced by any developing country. And it raises the same problem that Krugman, I’m afraid, has never dealt with: how to you convince or compel the stratum that controls the social surplus to commit to the development of new industries? In the textbook world — which Krugman I’m afraid still occupies — a generic financial system channels savings to the highest-return available investment projects. In the real world, not so much. Figuring out how to get savings to investment is, on the contrary, an immensely challenging institutional problem.

So, first step dealing with it, you should read Gerschenkron. We know, anyway that probably the rich prefer to hold their wealth in liquid form, or overseas, or both. And we know that even if — unlikely — they want to invest in domestic industries, they’ll choose those that are already cost-competitive, when, we know, the whole point of development is to do stuff where you don’t, right now, have comparative advantage. So, again, it’s a problem.

There are solutions to this problem. Banks, the developmental state, even industrial dynasties. But it is a problem, and it needs to be solved. Relative prices are second order. Or so it seems to me.

[*] Unfortunately Eurostat doesn’t seem to have data breaking down nongovernmental transfer payments to Greece. I suspect that the main form of private transfers is remittances from Greek workers elsewhere in Europe, but perhaps not.

Pain Is the Agenda: The Method in the ECB’s Madness

Krugman is puzzled by the European Central Bank:

I’ve been hearing various attempts to explain the ECB’s utterly bizarre refusal to cut interest rates… The most popular story seems to be that the ECB wants to “hold politicians’ feet to the fire”, letting them know that they won’t get relief unless they do what’s necessary (whatever that is). This really doesn’t make any sense. If we’re talking about enforcing austerity and wage cuts in the periphery, how much more incentive do these economies need?

He is certainly right that if the goal is resolving the crisis, or even price stability, then refusing further rate cuts is mighty strange. But who says those are the goals? His final question is meant to be rhetorical, but it really isn’t. Because the more austerity you want, the more enforcement you need.

I met someone the other day with a fairly senior position at the Greek tax authority; her salary had just been cut by 40 percent. When, outside of an apocalyptic crisis, do you see pay cuts like that? Which, for you or me or Paul Krugman, is an argument to End This Depression Now. But if you are someone who sees pay cuts as the goal, then it could be an argument for not quite yet.

It’s a tenet of liberalism — and a premise of the conversation Krugman is part of — that there are conflicting opinions, but not conflicting interests. But sometimes, when people seem to keep doing things with the wrong outcome, it’s because that’s the outcome they actually want. Paranoid? Conspiracy theory? Maybe. On the other hand, here’s Deutsches Bundsbank president Jens Weidmann:

Relieving stress in the sovereign bond markets eases imminent funding pain but blurs the signal to sovereigns about the precarious state of public finances and the urgent need to act. Macroeconomic imbalances and unsustainable public and private debt in some member states lie at the heart of the sovereign debt crisis. It may appeal to politicians to abstain from unpopular decisions and try to solve problems through monetary accommodation. However, it is up to monetary policymakers to fend off these pressures.

That seems pretty clear. From the perspective of the central banker, resolving the crisis too painlessly would be bad, because that would allow governments to “avoid unpopular decisions.” And it’s true: If there’s something you really want governments to do, but you don’t think they will make the necessary decisions except in a crisis, then it is perfectly rational to prolong the crisis until you see the right decisions being made.

So, what kind of decision are we talking about, exactly? Krugman professes bafflement — “whatever that is” — but it’s not really such a mystery. Here’s an editorial in the FT on the occasion of last summer’s ECB intervention to support the market for Italy’s public debt:

Structural reform is the quid pro quo for the European Central Bank’s purchases last week of Italian government bonds, an action that bought Italy breathing space by driving down yields. … As the government belatedly recognises, boosting Italy’s growth prospects requires a liberalisation of rigid labour markets and a bracing dose of competition in the economy’s sheltered service sectors. This is where the unions and professional bodies must play their part. Susanna Camusso, leader of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest trade union, is threatening to call a general strike to block the proposed labour law reforms. She would be better advised to co-operate with the government and employers… The government’s austerity measures are sure to curtail economic growth in the short run. Only if long overdue structural reforms take root will the pain be worthwhile.

A couple of things worth noting here. First the explicit language of the quid pro quo — the ECB was not just doing what was needed to stabilize the Italian bond market, but offering stabilization as a bargaining chip in order to achieve its other goals. If ECB was selling expansionary policy last year, why be surprised they’re not giving it away for free today? Note also the suggestion that a sacrifice of short-term output is potentially worthwhile — this isn’t some flimflam about expansionary austerity, but an acknowledgement that expansion is being give up to achieve some other goal. And third, that other goal: Everything mentioned is labor market reform, it’s all about concessions by labor (including professionals). No mention of more efficient public services, better regulation of the financial system, or anything like that.

The FT editorialist is accurately presenting the ECB’s view. My old teacher Jerry Epstein has a good summary at TripleCrisis of the conditions for intervention; among other things, the ECB demanded “full liberalisation of local public services…. particularly… the provision of local services through large scale privatizations”; “reform [of] the collective wage bargaining system … to tailor wages and working conditions to firms’ specific needs…”;  “thorough review of the rules regulating the hiring and dismissal of employees”; and cuts to private as well as public pensions, “making more stringent the eligibility criteria for seniority pensions” and raising the retirement age of women in the private sector. Privatization, weaker unions, more employer control over hiring and firing, skimpier pensions. This is well beyond what we normally think of as the remit of a central bank.

So what Krugman presents as a vague, speculative story about the ECB’s motives — that they want to hold politicians’ feet to the fire — is, on the contrary, exactly what they say they are doing.

It’s true that the conditions imposed by the ECB on Italy and Greece were in the context of programs relating specifically to those countries’ public debt, while here we are talking about a rate cut. But there’s no fundamental difference — cutting rates and buying bonds are two ways of describing the same basic policy. If there’s conditions for one, we should expect conditions for the other, and in fact we find the same “quid pro quo” language is being used now as then.

Here’s a banker in the FT:

The future of Europe will therefore be determined by the interests of the ECB. Self-preservation suggests that it will prevent complete collapse. If necessary, it will overrule Germany to do this, as the longer-term refinancing operations and government bond purchase programme suggest. But self-preservation and preventing collapse do not amount to genuine cyclical relief and policy stimulus. Indeed, the ECB appears to believe that in addition to price stability it has a mandate to impose structural reform. To this extent, cyclical pain is part of its agenda.

Again, there’s nothing irrational about this. If you really believe that structural reform is vital, and that democratic governments won’t carry it out except under the pressure of a crisis, then what would be irrational would be to relieve the crisis before the reforms are carried out. In this context, an “irrational” moralism can be an advantage. While one can take a hard line in negotiations and still be ready to blink if the costs of non-agreement get too high, it’s best if the other side believes that you’ll blow it all up if you don’t get what you want.  Fiat justitia et pereat mundus, says Martin Wolf, is a dangerous motto. Yes; but it’s a strong negotiating position.

But this invites a question: Why does the ECB regard labor market liberalization (aka structural reform) as part of its mandate? Or perhaps more precisely, when the ECB negotiates with national governments, on whose behalf is it negotiating?

The answer the ECB itself might give is, society as a whole. After all, this is the consensus view of central banks’ role. Elected governments are subject to time inconsistency, or are captured by rent seekers, or just don’t work, so an “independent” body is needed to take the long view. It’s never been clear why this should apply only to monetary policy, and in fact there’s a well-established liberal view that the independent central bank model should be extended to other areas of policy. Alan Blinder:

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. … the argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. Think of decisions on health policy (should we spend more on cancer or aids research?), tax policy (should we reduce taxes on capital gains?), or environmental policy (how should we cope with damage to the ozone layer?). Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? … The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended to other arenas. … The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if … left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.

I’m sure there are plenty of people at the ECB who think along the same lines as the former Fed Vice-Chair. Indeed, that central banks want what’s best for everyone is practically an axiom of modern economics. Still, it’s funny, isn’t it, that “structural reform” so consistently turns out to mean lower wages?

Martin Wolf’s stuff on the European crisis has been essential. But it has one blind spot: The only conflicts he sees are between nations. What perplexes him is “the riddle of German self-interest.” But maybe the answer to the riddle is that national interests are not the only ones in play.

It’s hard not to think here of Perry Anderson’s thesis, developed (alongside other themes) in The New Old World, that the EU project is fundamentally a response by European elites to their inability to roll back social democracy at the national level. The new supra-national institutions of the EU have allowed them to bypass political cultures that remain stubbornly (if incompletely) egalitarian and solidaristic. In Alain Supiot’s summary:

In Anderson’s view, the European project has engendered neither a federation nor an intergovernmental organization; rather it is the most fully realized form of Hayek’s ultraliberal ‘catallaxy’. … Like a secular version of faith in divine providence, belief in the spontaneous order of the markets entails a desire to protect it from the untimely interventions of people seeking ‘a just distribution’ which, according to Hayek, is nothing more than ‘an atavism, based on primordial emotions’. Hence the need to ‘dethrone the political’ by means of constitutional steps which create ‘a functioning market in which nobody can conclusively determine how well-off particular groups or individuals will be’. In other words, it is necessary to put the division of labour and the distribution of its fruits beyond the reach of the electorate. This is the dream that the European institutions have turned into a reality. Beneath the chaste veil of what is conventionally known as the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ lies a denial of democracy.

Jerry Epstein puts it more bluntly. The ECB’s insistence on structural reform “represents a cynical raw power calculus to destroy worker and citizen protections  without any real belief in the underlying neo-liberal economics they use to justify it.” (If you prefer your political economy in audiovisual form, he has a video talking about this stuff.)

This kind of language makes people uncomfortable. Rather than acknowledge that the behavior of people in power could represent a particular interest — let alone that of the top against the bottom, or capital against labor — much better to throw your hands up and profess bafflement: their choices are “bizarre,” a “riddle.” This isn’t, let’s be clear, a personal failing. If you or I occupied the same kind of positions as Krugman or Wolf, we’d be subject to the same constraints. And I anyway don’t want to find myself talking to no one but a handful of grumpy old Marxists.

But on the other hand, as Doug Henwood likes to quote our late friend Bob Fitch, “vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what happens in the world.” And then, I keep looking back through FT articles on the crisis, and finding stuff like this:

The central bank has long called for eurozone economies to press ahead with structural reforms. That the ‘E’ in EMU, or Economic and Monetary Union, has not occurred is a complaint often voiced by ECB officials. On this score, the central bank has managed to win an important concession in forcing Italy to sign up to liberalising its economy. Some may see this as a pyrrhic victory for the damage that the bond purchases have done to the central bank’s independence. But there was a significant threat to stability if the central bank did not act. …That Mr Trichet, always among the more politically savvy of central bankers, managed to get some concessions on structural reform was all that could be hoped for.

One has to wonder: What does it mean for the ECB to “win an important concession” from an elected government? Who is it winning the concession for? And if the problem with the ECB is just an ideological fixation on its inflation-fighting credibility, why would it be willing to sacrifice some of that credibility to advance this other goal?

It’s hard to suppress a lingering suppression that central bankers are, after all, bankers. And then you think, isn’t there an important sense in which finance embodies the interests of the capitalist class as a whole? (In an anodyne way, this is even sort of what its conventional capital-allocation function means) You wonder if the only reason Karl Marx called “the modern executive is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” is that central banks didn’t yet exist.

Imagine you’re a European capitalist, or business owner if you prefer the sound of that. You look at the United States and see the promised land. Employment at will — imagine, no laws limiting your ability to fire whoever you want. Private pensions, gone. Unions almost gone, strikes a thing of the past. Meanwhile, in 2002, 95 out of every 1,000 workers in the Euro area — nearly ten percent — was on strike at some point during the year. (In Spain, it was 270 out of every 1,000. In Italy, over 300.) And of course there’s the vastly greater share of income going to your American peers. Look at it from their point of view: Why wouldn’t they want what their American cousins have?

It seems to me that what would really be bizarre, would be if European capitalists did not see the crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’d be crazy — they’d be betraying their own interests — if, given the ECB’s suddenly increased power vis-a-vis national governments, they didn’t insist that it extract all the concessions it can.

Isn’t that what they’re doing? Moreover, isn’t it what they say they’re doing? When the “Global Head of Market Economics” at the world’s biggest bank says that the ECB should only cut rates “as part of a quid pro quo with governments agreeing to more far-reaching structural reform,” what do you think he means?

Prices and the European Crisis, Continued

In comments to yesterday’s post on exchange rates and European trade imbalances, paine (the e. e. cummings of the econosphere) says,

pk prolly buys your conclusion. notice his post basically disparaging forex adjustment solutions on grounds of short run impact. but long run adjustment requires forex changes.

I don’t know. I suppose we all agree that exchange rate changes won’t help in the short run (in fact, I’m not sure Krugman does agree), but I’m not convinced exchange rate changes will make much of a difference even in the long run; and anyway, it matters how long the long run is. When the storm is long past the ocean is flat again, and all that.

Anyway, what Krugman actually wrote was

We know that huge current account imbalances opened up when capital rushed to the European periphery after the euro was created, and reversing those imbalances must involve a large real devaluation.

We “know,” it “must”: not much wiggle room there.

So this is the question, and I think it’s an important one. Are trade imbalances in Europe the result of overvalued exchange rates in the periphery, and undervalued exchange rates in the core, which in turn result from the financial flows from north to south after 1999? And are devaluations in Greece and the other crisis countries a necessary and sufficient condition to restore a sustainable balance of trade?

It’s worth remembering that Keynes thought the answer to these kinds of questions was, in general, No. As Skidelsky puts it in the (wonderful) third volume of his Keynes biography, Keynes rejected the idea of floating exchange rates because

he did not believe that the Marshall-Lerner condition would, in general, be satisfied. This states that, for a change in the value of a country’s currency to restore equilibrium in its balance of payments, the sum of the price elasticities for its exports and imports must be more than one. [1] As Keynes explained to Henry Clay: “A small country in particular may have to accept substantially worse terms for its exports in terms of its imports if it tries to force the former by means of exchange depreciation. If, therefore, we take account of the terms of trade effect there is an optimum level of exchange such that any movement either way would cause a deterioration of the country’s merchandise balance.” Keynes was convinced that for Britain exchange depreciation would be disastrous…

Keynes’ “elasticity pessimism” is distinctly unfashionable today. It’s an article of faith in open-economy macroeconomics that depreciations improve the trade balance, despite rather weak evidence. A recent mainstream survey of the empirical literature on trade elasticities concludes,

A typical finding in the empirical literature is that import and export demand elasticities are rather low, and that the Marshall-Lerner (ML) condition does not hold. However, despite the evidence against the ML condition, the consensus is that real devaluations do improve the balance of trade

Theory ahead of measurement in international trade!

(Paul Davidson has a good discussion of this on pages 138-144 of his book on Keynes.)

The alternative view is that the main relationship is between trade flows and growth rates. In models of balance-of-payments-constrained growth, countries’ long-term growth rates depend on the ratio of export income-elasticity of demand and import income-elasticity of demand. More generally, while a strong short-run relationship between exchange rates and trade flows is clearly absent, and a long-run relationship is mostly speculative, the relationship between faster growth and higher imports (and vice versa) is unambiguous and immediate. [2]

So let’s look at some Greek data, keeping in mind that Greece is not necessarily representative of the rest of the European periphery. The picture below shows Greece’s merchandise and overall trade balance as percent of GDP (from the WTO; data on service trade is only available from 1980), the real exchange rate (from the BIS) and real growth rate (from the OECD; three-year moving averages). Is this a story of prices, or income?

The first thing we can say is that it is not true that Greek deficits are a product of the single currency.  Greece has been running substantial trade deficits for as far back as the numbers go. Second, it’s hard to see a relationship between the exchange rate and trade flows. It’s especially striking that the 20 percent real depreciation of the drachma from the late 1960s to the early 1970s — quite a large movement as these things go — had no discernible effect on Greek trade flows at all. The fall in income since the crisis, on the other hand, has produced a very dramatic improvement in the Greek current account, despite the fact that the real exchange rate has appreciated slightly over the period. It’s very hard to look at the right side of the figure and feel any doubt about what drives Greek trade flows, at least in the short run.

Now, it is true that, prior to the crisis, the Euro era was associated with somewhat larger Greek trade deficits than in earlier years. (As I mentioned yesterday, this is entirely due to increased imports from outside the EU.) But was this due to the real appreciation Greece experienced under the Euro, or to the faster growth? It’s hard to judge this just by looking at a figure. (That’s why God gave us econometrics — though to be honest I’m a bit skeptical about the possibility of getting a definite answer here.) But here’s a suggestive point. Greece’s real exchange rate appreciated by 25 percent between 1986 and 1996. This is even more than the appreciation after the Euro. Yet that earlier decade saw no growth of the Greek trade deficit at all. It was only when Greek growth accelerated in the early 2000s that the trade deficit swelled.

I think Yanis Varoufakis is right: It’s hard to see exit and devaluation as solutions for Greece, in either the short term or the long term. There are good reasons why, historically, European countries have almost never let their exchange rates float against each other. And it’s hard to see fixed exchange rates, in themselves, as an important cause of the crisis.

[1] Skidelsky gives the Marshall-Lerner condition in its standard form, but the reality is a bit more complicated. The simple condition applies only in cases where prices are set in the producing country and fully passed through to the destination country, and where trade is initially balanced. Also, it should really be the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition. Joan Robinson was robbed!

[2] Krugman wrote a very doctrinaire paper years ago rejecting the idea of balance of payments constraints on growth. I’ve quoted this here before, but it’s worth repeating:

I am simply going to dismiss a priori the argument that income elasticities determine economic growth, rather than the other way around. It just seems fundamentally implausible that over stretches of decades balance of payments problems could be preventing long term growth… Furthermore, we all know that differences in growth rates among countries are primarily determined by differences in the rate of growth of total factor productivity, not by differences in the rate of growth of employment. … Thus we are driven to supply-side explanations…
The Krugmans and DeLongs really have no one to blame but themselves for accepting that all the purest, most dogmatic orthodoxy was true in the long run, and then letting long-run growth take over the graduate macro curriculum.

UPDATE: I should add that as far as the trade balance is concerned, what matters is not just a country’s growth, but its growth relative to its trade partners. This may be why rapid Greek growth in the 1970s was not associated with a worsening trade balance — this was the trente glorieuse, when all the major European countries were experiencing similar income growth. Also, in comments, Random Lurker points to a paper suggesting that another factor in rising Greek imports was the removal of tariffs and other trade restrictions after accession to the EU. I haven’t had time to read the paper properly yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is an important part of the story.

Also, I was discussing this at the bar the other night, and at the end of the conversation my very smart Brazilian friend said, “But devaluation has to work. It just has to.” And she knows this stuff far better than I do, so, maybe.

Do Prices Matter? EU Edition

The Euro crisis. One thing sensible people agree on is that the crisis has little or nothing to do with fiscal deficits  (government borrowing), and everything to do with current account deficits (international borrowing, whether public or private.) And one thing sensible people do not agree on, is how much those current account deficits are due to relative costs, or competitiveness.

A thorough dissection of competitiveness in the European context is here; Merijn Knibbe has some good posts critiquing it at the Real World Economics Review. Krugman, on the other hand, defends the competitiveness story, suggesting that the alternative to believing that relative prices drive trade flows, is believing in the “doctrine of immaculate transfer.” What he means is, the accounting identity that net capital flows equal net trade flows doesn’t in itself provide the mechanism by which trade adjusts to financial flows. A country with an increasing net financial inflow must, in an accounting sense, experience an increasing current account deficit; but you still need a story about why people choose to buy more from, or are able to sell less to, abroad.
So far, one can’t disagree; but the problem is, Krugman assumes the story has to be about relative prices. It’s not the case, though, that relative prices are the only thing that drive trade flows. At the least, incomes do too. If German wages fall, German goods may become more cost-competitive; but in any case, German workers will buy less of everything, including vacations in Greece. Similarly, if Greek wages rise, Greek goods may be priced out of international markets; but in any case Greek workers will buy more of everything, including manufactured goods from Germany. Estimating the respective impacts of relative prices and incomes on trade flows, or the elasticities approach, is one of the lost treasures of the economics of 1978. Both income and price elasticities solve the immaculate transfer problem, since capital flows from northern to southern Europe were associated with faster growth of both income and prices in the south. But their implications for policy going forward are quite different. If the problem is relative prices, a devaluation will fix it; this is what Krugman believes. If the problem is income elasticities, on the other hand, then balanced trade within Europe will require some mix of structural reforms (easier said than done), permanently faster growth in the north than the south, or — blasphemy! — restrictions on trade.
Let’s pose two alternatives, understanding that the truth, presumably, is somewhere in between. In the one case, EU current account imbalances are due entirely to countries’ over- or undervalued currencies. In the other case, current account imbalances are due entirely to differences in growth rates. One thing we do know: In the short run — a year or two — the latter is approximately true. In the short run, the Marshall-Lerner-Robinson condition is almost certainly not satisfied, so a change in prices will have the “wrong” effect on foreign exchange earnings, or at best — if the country’s imports and exports are both priced in foreign currency — have no effect. In the long run, it’s less clear. Do prices or incomes matter more? Hard to say.
So what is the evidence one way or the other? One simple suggestive strand of evidence is the intra- and extra-European trade balances of various countries in the EU. To the extent that trade flows have been driven by price, the deficit countries should have seen larger deficits with other EU countries than with other countries, and the surplus countries similarly should have seen larger surpluses within the union than outside it. Those countries whose currencies would otherwise, presumably, have appreciated relative to other EU members should have shifted their net exports towards Europe; those countries whose currencies would otherwise have depreciated should have shifted their net exports away. Is that what we see?
As is often the case with empirical work, the answer is: Yes and no. From Eurostat, here are trade balances as percent of GDP, within and outside the currency union, for selected countries and selected years.
Intra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  2.0% 4.8% 2.1%
Ireland 19.0% 7.4% 12.6%
Greece -10.0% -9.6% -5.3%
Spain -2.9% -4.0% -0.6%
France -0.3% -3.1% -4.3%
Italy 0.5% 0.5% -0.2%
Netherlands 14.8% 24.5% 27.9%
Austria -3.9% -3.0% -5.0%
Extra-EU Trade Balance
1999 2007-2008 2011
Germany  1.2% 2.8% 4.0%
Ireland 6.1% 7.8% 15.1%
Greece -3.9% -9.1% -4.4%
Spain -2.1% -5.1% -3.8%
France 1.0% -0.1% 0.0%
Italy 0.8% -1.2% -1.4%
Netherlands -11.8% -17.5% -20.5%
Austria 1.4% 2.7% 1.9%
What we see here is sort of consistent with the competitiveness story, and sort of not. Germany did increase its intra-EU net exports about twice as much as its extra-EU net exports over the pre-crisis decade, just as a story centered on relative prices would predict. And on the flipside, the fall in Irish net exports over the pre-crisis decade was entirely with other EU countries, again consistent with the Krugman story. 
But for the other countries, it’s not so simple. The increase of the Euro-era Greek deficit, for instance, was entirely the result of increased imports from non-Euro countries. Euro-area trade, and non-Euro exports, were approximately constant in the ten years from 1999. This is more consistent with a story of rapid Greek income growth, than uncompetitively high Greek prices. Similarly, the movement toward current account deficit of Spain was mostly, and of Italy entirely, a matter of trade with non-EU countries. This is not consistent with the relative-price story, which predicts that intra-EU trade imbalances should have grown relative to extra-EU imbalances. Note also that today, Germany’s net exports to the rest of the EU area are no higher than when the Euro was created, while Greece and Spain have substantially improved their intra-EU balances; but all three countries have moved further toward imbalance with extra-EU countries. This, again, is not consistent with a story in which trade imbalances are driven primarily by the relative price distortions created by the single currency.
Conclusion: Krugman is right that how much relative prices have contributed to intra-European current account imbalances, is a question on which reasonable people can disagree. But as a doctrinaire Keynesian, I remain an elasticity pessimist. It seems to me that we should at least seriously consider a story in which European current account imbalances are due to relatively rapid income growth in the periphery, and slow income growth in Germany, as opposed to changes in competitiveness. A story, in other words, in which a Greek exit from the Euro and devaluation will not do much good.
UPDATE: While I was writing this, Merijn Knibbe had more or less the same thought.

Davies on the Disorder in Europe

My friend Jen writes about informal labor markets in South Africa. She was telling me the other day about street vendors who make their living buying packs of a dozen pairs of socks and selling them pair by pair. In that same spirit of finding a niche in the very last step of the distribution network, I thought I would pass on some material from a talk I attended last week by Sir Howard Davies. It’s below the fold, with occasional comments from me in brackets. A lot may seem familiar, but enough was new to me — and Davies is high enough up in this world; he’d had dinner the night before with Charles Dallara — that I think it’s worthwhile to put down my notes in full.

There are six and half questions to ask about the Euro system. Is the crisis over? Why did anyone think it would work? Why did it take so long to fall apart? Are the responses to date sufficient? What more is needed? Why even bother? And the half question, what’s it all mean for the UK?

To question 1, no surprise, the answer is No.  “The ECB has been making really good policy for a country that doesn’t exist.” The fundamental problem of pan-European banks with no pan-European regulator or lender of last resort is no closer to being resolved; “some sticking-plaster has been applied,” that’s all.

On question 2, there were three reasons:

Some people said, “Yes, you will need a fiscal authority, but it will happen.” Europe policy in general has developed through a process of leap forward, then retrofit. And after all, it says right in the treaty “Ever closer union.”

Other people thought the stability and growth pact would ensure appropriate policy.

A third group of people, including Davies, believed something like, “Yes, these economies are very different, with different labor market institutions and so on, but without the option of devaluation they will be forced to converge.” Periodic devaluations had allowed southern European countries to avoid structural reform, but now everyone would have to behave like the Germans.

Well, all these views were wrong. Why? Three reasons:

– Maastricht turned out to be the high point of enthusiasm for federalism. Every single vote on additional federalism has said, No.

– The SGP turned out to be both too tight, in that it didn’t leave enough space for countercyclical fiscal policy, and too loose, in that it had no enforcement mechanism. [So it sounds like Davies would be on board with John Quiggin’s “hard Keynesianism.”]

– Lower interest rates were not used for fiscal consolidation. [This seems wrong to me, at least for Italy and Spain.] And there was no convergence to German levels of productivity.

On question 3, the first answer was that the first decade of the euro was, in Mervyn King’s unfelicitous coinage, NICE — Non-Inflationary with Consistent Expansion. And the ECB, while prohibited from buying government bonds directly, bought them in secondary markets at equal rates, meaning there was no pressure for fiscal discipline on member states. [Again, I’m resistant to this story, except for Greece and maybe Portugal.] Davies recalls talking to a Morgan Stanley bond dude, explaining how he marketed Greek debt: “A Greek bond is just like a German bund, except with an extra three points of interest.” There was a real market failure here, says Davies, and the banks that ended up holding this stuff (all European, by the way, American institutions have successfully elimianted almost all their exposure) deserve their haircuts.

[It would be interesting to explore the idea that an unsustainable current account deficit is precisely one that can only be financed with an interest rate premium.]

Question 4, the adequacy of the response. “The problem is that they are focused on the last crisis and the next crisis, but not on the current crisis.” By which he means that they are putting in place rules that would have helped if they’d already been in place years ago, while ignoring the ways in which “responsible” fiscal policy will exacerbate the current downturn. The problem right now is that austerity just makes the growth picture worse, and that the European “rescue capacity” is too small.

Question 5, what more is needed. In the short run, a better firewall is needed to prevent contagion from the worst-hit countries and institutions. In the longer run, Europe needs (a) some system for Europe-wide public borrowing (one idea would be for debt up to, but not above, the SGP levels to be backed by the community as a whole); and (b) a pan-European bank regulator and lender of last resort. But the Germans won’t go for it.

Which brings us to Question 6. Wouldn’t some countries be better off leaving? Greece’s departure is probably inevitable, he said. But it poses major challenges — even if you had an agreed-on procedure for converting Greek euros to the new Greek currency, which euros are the Greek ones? “If the coin says Greece, no problem. Greek government bonds, ok, those are Greek. And if you are living in Greece and have an account in a Greek bank, then that is probably a Greek euro. But, I have a boat in Greece and an account at Barclay’s in Athens. Are those Greek euros? I hope not. How about someone living in Athens but with a bank account in London, is that a Greek euro?” And beyond those technical problems, there are even worse political problems, that should make exit the last possible resort. Because, who will benefit from the failure of the euro, politically? In France, the fascists — Marie le Pen based her whole campaign around it. “In Greece, it would be the anarchists and the communists, they’re the only ones who have been against the euro.” [OH NOES the anarchists.] The communists in Hungary, Sinn Fein in Ireland, etc. “Only in the UK can you say that the Euro-skeptics are not mad people.”

Nonetheless, Greek exit is probably unavoidable. “My hunch is that Greece will not make it,” because they lack social capital. The Irish are stoic, they will accept lower pay and higher taxes. They say, ah well, we had a good few years but it had to end. Not the Greeks, they won’t pay taxes. [There was a shaggy-dog story in here about local officials in Spain and Greece competing to see who can waste more EU money.] Gas costs $6 a gallon in Greece because it’s almost the only thing the government can reliably tax. “Latvia could make austerity work because they’d been in the USSR for 50 years, they were used to unpleasant and dramatic things happening. The population would accept incredible privation.” The Greek population, sadly, will not.

And on the last half question: If the solution is “more Europe,” that will be a big problem for the UK. Cameron is a Euro-skeptic; it’s not just because he’s responding to popular opinion, but nonetheless popular opinion is heading that way. The UK is going to face increasing pressure to detach itself from the EU.

And a few other observations, from the Q&A:

“You can’t imagine Italy having an unelected government for long, but they are urgently engaged in some necessary reforms that would otherwise be impossible.”

There has never been a referendum in favor of the euro.

German wages have not gone up, German property values have not gone up, why should ordinary Germans feel like they are the beneficiaries of the euro and want to do more to save it? [Sounds like an argument for Thomas Jørgensen’s “Drink finer wines, drive nicer cars, and party harder!” platform.]

Most likely, Greece will have a disorderly exit, and that will concentrate the minds of European policymakers to take the necessary steps to prevent a repeat. Avoiding future defaults will require some kind of collective guarantee of Euro-area bonds, but Germans won’t accept that until it’s clear that the altenrative is catastrophe. So, “Greece may have to perform this service.”

The alternative is for Greece to do what Latvia did, structural reforms, get rid of anti-competitive policies. The problem is, you don’t have a full technocratic government in Greece, you still have elected officials with real power. [And that, I think, is what it all comes down to.]

I Was Born on the Wrong Continent

… because I want to vote for this guy:

François Hollande, the leading challenger for the French presidency, has described the banking industry as a faceless ruler and his “true adversary”. As he launched in earnest his campaign to become France’s first socialist head of state since the mid-1990s, Mr Hollande said he would seek a Franco-German treaty to overturn the “dominance of finance” and re-orient Europe towards growth and big industrial projects.

At a rally on the outskirts of Paris in front of thousands of supporters on Sunday afternoon, he said: “My true adversary does not have a name, a face, or a party. He never puts forward his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.” … Mr Hollande promised, if elected, to separate the investment activities of French banks from their other operations, ban them from tax havens and establish a “public” credit ­rating agency for Europe. He also promised higher taxes for people earning more than €150,000 a year and attacked the “new aristocracy” of today’s super-rich. A financial transaction tax would be introduced, with France acting with other European countries willing to participate….

In a powerful speech that advisers said he had written himself over the weekend, the socialist candidate came out fighting, looking to make an impression on the broader French public by taking aim at some carefully chosen national bêtes noires. These included globalisation, unemployment and shrinking domestic industry. But uppermost were bankers….

“I have always followed the line on which I was fixed,” he said. “I am a socialist. The left did not come to me through heritage. It was necessary for me to move towards it.”

Certain leftists I know will say this is just populist bluster, that nothing is finance’s fault, and that this kind of language is just a distraction from genuine radical politics. But it’s not all bluster: As Arin D. points out, French bankers seem to have been born on the wrong continent, too.

 Maybe we can arrange a swap?