Current Affairs

Nonetheless it is considering tolerating them, as we are told by Air Genius Gary Leff.  Here is one short bit:

The tourism minister says that even though the Greek Prime Minister is attacking all-inclusive resorts as it identifies problems with the country’s economy, it has no plans to make crackdown on these properties ‘its mission’.

How reassuring.  Greece needs some Very Serious People in charge!  Right now it doesn’t have them.  And as you know, one thing worse than the Very Serious People is…the Not Very Serious People.  I think someone told them that all-inclusive resorts might drain off domestic aggregate demand (p.s. investment matters too, including for demand).

Oh, had I mentioned that tourism provides 15% of Greek gdp? (higher by some estimates, perhaps up to 20%).  I’m all for debt forgiveness in this context, but right now the Greeks need to get serious or they will tumble off the cliff and soon.

Sarah O’Connor reports from the FT:

Pay inequality has lessened in the UK during the past three years because the real wages of highly paid employees have fallen more steeply than those in low-paid jobs.

While there is concern about high levels of income inequality in the UK, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank suggests the squeeze on wages has been more acute at the top than the bottom. It also shows that men have fared worse than women and the young worse than the old.

The full story is here.

I hope Robert Mundell is proud:

The idyllic Swiss village of Grächen, flanked by better-known competitors Zermatt and Saas-Fee, has declared itself a financial microclimate, with constant exchange rate of 1.35 francs to the euro. The rate has been in place during winter months since 2011, and squarely ignores the official rate, which is currently closer to parity. It’s observed by the vast majority of hotels, shops, lift pass providers and restaurants—and has particularly paid off during the last two weeks. The only catch? You have to pay cash.

“In 2011, when the euro started falling during the eurozone crisis, bookings decreased rapidly for the winter season because it was just becoming too expensive for tourists, especially those from abroad,” explains Berno Stoffel, director at the tourism office in Grächen, which has less than 1,400 permanent residents and is almost exclusively economically dependent on farming and tourism. As the Swiss franc has soared, resorts in neighboring France, Austria and Germany – all in the eurozone – have become cheaper. “We had to do something so we decided to play central bank,” says Mr. Stoffel.

And so far it’s proved lucrative.

“I have heard from colleagues in other resorts that they have seen a huge number of holiday cancellations after the Swiss National Bank removed the currency floor, because it’s just become too expensive. We haven’t had a single cancellation on a holiday home or in a hotel due to the currency,” he says.

That is from Josie Cox at the WSJ.  Here is a picture of the village.

In addition to my earlier pick of Chile, I now must nominate Sweden and Norway for this honor.  Both are wonderful countries, and in absolute terms very likely to remain strong performers.  But I think a good deal of that old Nordic magic is slipping away, and this has become more evident in the last few years.

Let’s start with Sweden and maybe I’ll get to Norway another time:

1. The average product of their education system seems to have declined rather rapidly, as measured by test scores.  On PISA they have gone from #4 to #21.

2. Arguably the basic Swedish economic social model is inconsistent with their level of immigration, and I don’t see them switching to a different economic and social model anytime soon.  You can be pro-immigration, and still not think Sweden is honing in on the right mix of domestic policy and immigration policy.

3. Swedish manufacturing seems to be deindustrializing at a faster than expected pace.  And some of Sweden’s most successful sectors are exposed to a lot of competition from emerging markets, in particular because they rely heavily on engineering talent.  Sweden also has a significant presence in financial services, but they are not an obvious future winner in that area.  And do timber, hydropower, and iron — their main commodity exports — have such a promising future?  There are probably few disasters lurking here, but lots of question marks.

4. Sweden doesn’t seem to have a lot of low-hanging fruit left.  Female participation in the labor force already is high, and they already have done lots of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation.  It is not clear where the next generation of policy improvements will come from.  The McKinsey report recommends “increasing government productivity” as a major source of potential gains, but that is hardly easy, even for the Swedes.

5. The Swedish central bank seems to have scored an “own goal” by engaging in premature tightening, coming out of the earlier recession.  They’ll make much of that up over time, but still it is a sign the country has lost some mojo.

6. Sweden’s household to debt ratio is about 170%, one of the highest in the world.  This is not only troubling in its own right, but arguably it is a sign debt is being used to make up for a slow accumulation of underlying economic deficiencies, as was the case in the United States.  Furthermore “Four in 10 mortgage borrowers in Sweden are not paying off their debt, according to data collected by Reuters, and those that are repaying the principal are doing so at a rate that would on average take nearly a century.”  They are probably still in the middle of a housing bubble.

7. There is an erosion of support for mainstream Swedish political parties.  You don’t have to approve of those parties to see this as a symptom of a very slight underlying political rot setting in.  The “extreme Right” party has seen a rapid rise in support.

8. A rampaging Putin probably won’t harm them directly, but still recent Russian events raise geopolitical risk in their neighborhood.

Don’t worry, the Swedes will do fine, but they have arrived at officially overrated status.  I was more sanguine about their prospects a few years ago than I am today and I would not invest in their stock market.  If you wish to count their pluses however, they still have a very good system of government, a strong ethic of trust and cooperation, a good ability to change course when necessary, high productivity, a strong presence in information technology, a wonderful export capacity, low public debt, and first-rate proficiency in English, among other virtues.

That all said, the Swedish currency is actually down against the euro since the beginning of the year.

The new far-left government in Greece dropped a bombshell on its first day in office by abjuring an EU statement on Russia.

There is more here, via Anders Aslund.  I guess they don’t have any other European issues they need to spend their political capital on…

Yanis Varoufakis

by on January 27, 2015 at 6:46 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Uncategorized | Permalink

He is an economist, taught last year at UT Austin, and is now the new finance minister of Greece.  You can find him here on scholar.google.com.  And here is his 2011 proposal for overcoming the euro crisis, another version of that here (pdf).  Here is his blog post on the Scottish Enlightenment.  Previously he was working as an economist for Valve, a video game company.  Here is Yanis on EconTalk with Russ Roberts.  The discussion of Greece and the eurozone starts at about 48:22.

His blog is here, he claims he will continue blogging:

The time to put up or shut up has, I have been told, arrived. My plan is to defy such advice. To continue blogging here even though it is normally considered irresponsible for a Finance Minister to indulge in such crass forms of communication. Naturally, my blog posts will become more infrequent and shorter. But I do hope they compensate with juicier views, comments and insights.

Here is a good Telegraph profile of the man.  Here is his Wikipedia page, and here is one excerpt:

In 2005/6, Varoufakis travelled extensively with artist Danae Stratou along seven dividing lines around the world (in Palestine, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Kosovo, Belfast, Cyprus, Kashmir and the US-Mexico border). Stratou produced the installation CUT: 7 dividing lines, while Varoufakis wrote texts that then became a political-economic account of these divisions, entitled The Globalising Wall. In 2010 Stratou and Varoufakis founded the project Vital Space.

Stay tuned, this will be fun.

“How can the Spanish or Italian prime minister tell voters that Greece has a lower interest burden than we have, but we still need to give them debt forgiveness?” said Mr Darvas.

That is from Ferdinando Giugliano at the FT, who is referring to the possibility that the Greek debt load might be sustainable.  Don’t focus on the debt to gdp ratio of 175 percent, consider that the interest rates are low and the term structure of the debt is long.  Here is your Greece fact of the day:

Mr Darvas calculates that total interest expenditure in 2014 [for Greece] was 2.6 per cent, only marginally above France’s 2.2 per cent.

Yet I do not find the Greek position to be sustainable.  As has been the case from the beginning, the real problem in the eurozone is in the politics, not the raw numbers of the economics.  It is worth noting that there are Maoist and Trotskyite factions in Syriza, so if we are going to moralize about the National Front in France, or other disreputable groups, let’s be a little more consistent here…

Quite a bit.  There is a new NBER Working Paper on this topic by Hagedorn, Manovskii, and Mitman, showing (once again) that most supply curves slope upward, here is one key part from the abstract:

In levels, 1.8 million additional jobs were created in 2014 due to the benefit cut. Almost 1 million of these jobs were filled by workers from out of the labor force who would not have participated in the labor market had benefit extensions been reauthorized.

There is an ungated copy here (pdf).  Like the sequester, this is another area where the Keynesian analysts simply have not proven a good guide to understanding recent macroeconomic events.

When I visited Santa Monica in January it struck me how much it reminded me of…Arlington.  Arlington is now essentially a part of Northwest, at least Arlington above Route 50 or so.  Arlington and Santa Monica have never been more alike, or less distinctive.

Parts of east Falls Church will meld into Arlington, and south Arlington will become more like north Arlington.  Real estate prices east/north of a particular line are rising and west of that line are falling.  Fairfax is definitely west of that line.

The Tysons Corner remake will fail, Vienna is not the new Clarendon, and the Silver Line and the monstrously wide Rt.7 will form a new dividing line between parts of Virginia which resemble Santa Monica and parts which do not.

Incumbents aside, no one lives in Fairfax any more to commute into D.C.  Why would you?  The alternatives are getting better and Metro parking became too difficult some time ago.  Fairfax is not being transformed, although some parts are morphing into “the new Shirlington.”  Most of it will stay dumpy on the retail side.  Annandale will stay with Fairfax, whether it likes it or not.

For ten years now I have been predicting various Fairfax restaurants will close — casualties of too-high rents — and mostly I have been wrong.  The good Annandale restaurants are running strong too.  Annandale won’t look much better anytime soon, thank goodness for that.

“Northern Virginia” is becoming two different places, albeit slowly.

Based on my paper, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City (with Shruti Rajagopalan) I discuss private cities with Russ Roberts over at EconTalk this week.

I think the conversation went well but I haven’t heard it yet so let me also take the time to point you to my favorite recent EconTalk, Russ interviewing Greg Page, the former CEO of Cargill, the largest privately-held company in America. Their discussion covers the global food supply, false definitions of national food security, the role of prices, comparative advantage and more. It’s a great discussion.

Kerin Hope from the FT reports:

A reluctance to pay taxes was much criticised by Greece’s creditors as one reason why the country needed a big international bailout. Now many Greeks are again avoiding the taxman as they bet the radical left Syriza party will quickly loosen fiscal policy if it comes to power in Sunday’s general election.

A finance ministry official confirmed on Friday that state revenues had collapsed this month. “It’s normal for the tax take to decline during an election campaign but this time it’s more noticeable,” the official said, avoiding any specific figures on the projected shortfall.

However, two private sector economists forecast the shortfall could exceed €1.5bn, or more than 40 per cent of projected revenues for January.

File under “In case you had not been paying attention…”  And here is Antonio Fatás with a Grexit scenario.  That is still not what most people expect, however.

Fighters for one of the factions battling for control of Libya seized the Benghazi branch of the country’s central bank on Thursday, threatening to set off an armed scramble for the bank’s vast stores of money and gold, and cripple one of the last functioning institutions in the country.

The central bank is the repository for Libya’s oil revenue and holds nearly $100 billion in foreign currency reserves. It is the great prize at the center of the armed struggles that have raged here since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011.

There is more here.  And in collapsing Yemen, the Iran-funded Houthi fighters seem to have the central bank tightly under guard.  Mario Draghi does not in fact have the toughest job in the world.

From the letters page of the FT:

Sir, Whether the European Central Bank chooses to embark on a programme of sovereign QE (or quantitative easing, as it used to be known) is of little day-to-day interest to most citizens of the EU. Whether the compilers of dictionaries accept that QE is now a word in its own right — as opposed to an abbreviation — is of far more relevance to us scrabble players. Using a Q without needing a free U it would rapidly be up there with Qi (the Chinese word for life force) as one of the most useful words in the lexicon.

Richard Kemmish

Surbiton, Surrey, UK

I would think that for the foreseeable future QE would be ruled an abbreviation, not a word, although enough years of macroeconomic misery eventually could flip this the other way.

Some abbreviations, however, are acceptable Scrabble words because they have entered common parlance.

Here are other “Q without U” words which are eligible for use in Scrabble.

John Bayley has passed away

by on January 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm in Books, Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

An Oxford Don, he wrote one of my all-time favorite books:

“Elegy for Iris” — titled “Iris: A Memoir” in Britain — appeared in 1998, when Murdoch was in the final stages of her disease. She died in February 1999 at age 79.

One obituary is here, more are here.  The book is here.

China started to lend massively to Venezuela in 2007. Since then it has lent more than $45bn, of which about $20bn is still outstanding.

That is from Ricardo Hausmann at the FT.