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Catalonia tries to avoid repeating history, but Spain has economic reality on its side

Catalonia tries to avoid repeating history, but Spain has economic reality on its side

Karl Marx famously wrote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”.

The phrase might well have been coined with Catalonia in mind.

Generalissimo Franco began a military coup against the elected Spanish government in the Canary Islands in 1936. The battle spread across Spain, and Catalonia was the last redoubt of the Republic to fall, in 1939. Franco took brutal revenge. Tens of thousands were imprisoned or executed, many of these within living memory. The Catalan language was banned.

Now the Catalans have proclaimed independence and Spain has imposed direct rule.

We do not of course know how events will pan out this time around. Things may turn serious. Yet there is certainly a slapstick element to having two different sets of police on the streets, and two different groups of civil servants, each taking different sets of orders.

In both the late 1930s and now, economics has a potentially decisive role in the eventual outcome.

There are many reasons for Franco’s victory. An important one is that the Republican side could just not obtain enough modern armaments. Catalonia even then was the richest part of Spain, but the arms the Catalans needed were made abroad, and, as the civil war progressed, increasingly they could not afford them.

A leading element in the Catalan government was the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM in Spanish). POUM was inspired by Leon Trotsky, in much the same way as Jeremy Corbyn and his close acolytes appear to be today.

Sympathy for the historical role of POUM goes a long way to explaining why Corbynistas are enthusiastic supporters of the contemporary Catalans.

But POUM made a catastrophic mistake: initiating a policy of expropriating private property. One effect was a major loss of confidence, and the collapse of the Republican peseta on the foreign exchanges, meaning that all imports, not just weapons, became punitively expensive.

Another generalissimo who was a political contemporary of Franco, one Joseph Stalin, described Trotskyists as a “gang of wreckers and diversionists”. In this, at least, he was surely correct.

This time, the Catalans are desperately trying to create separate a currency, using technology based on digital tokens. Their government is considering an e-residency programme such as the one in Estonia. This provides a way to operate a location-independent business online.

More traditional businesses have already voted with their feet. Almost 1,700 companies, including two big banks (Sabadell and CaixaBank), have switched their headquarters to other parts of Spain since the crisis escalated at the start of October.

The EU has made it clear that an independent Catalonia would not be a member of either the EU or the Eurozone. The latter would probably be a decided advantage, but effective expulsion from the EU could cause serious short term dislocations.

It is not just loyalty to Spain which is leading a lot of Catalans to demonstrate against independence. Whatever the long term outlook, the immediate economic costs would be substantial.

As published in City AM Wednesday 1st November 2017

Image: Demonstration by By Màrius Montón  via Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC by 4.0
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It’s time to question the macroeconomic orthodoxy on interest rates and inflation

It’s time to question the macroeconomic orthodoxy on interest rates and inflation

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, is getting his retaliation in early.

Faced yet again with the Bank failing to deliver its designated target of a two per cent inflation rate, in a speech last week he suggested that his remit was broader.

“We face a tradeoff between having inflation above target and the need to support, or the desirability of supporting, jobs and activity”, the governor stated.

In other words, he claimed that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank should be concerned not just with inflation, but with what economists describe as the “real” economy, output and jobs.

The Federal Reserve in the US is explicitly mandated to take account both inflation and the real economy when it sets interest rates. This is definitely not the case with the Bank of England. When Gordon Brown made it independent in 1997, its remit was unequivocal. It was to ensure that inflation was two per cent a year.

This time round, inflation is above the Bank’s target. The current level of some three per cent may even rise in the short term because the weakness of sterling is pushing up the cost of imports.

But in recent years, inflation has been below the two per cent desired rate, even falling to zero in 2015.

All this time, Bank rate has been essentially flat. The MPC cut it to just 0.5 per cent in March 2009, where it remained until the reduction to 0.25 per cent in August 2016.

To put this into perspective, when the rate fell to 1.5 per cent in January 2009, this was the first time it had been below two per cent since the Bank was created in 1694, well over 300 years ago.

So here is a puzzle for mainstream macroeconomists, whether in central banks or universities. Central banks are meant in theory to be able to control inflation by setting short term interest rates. Inflation has been low since 2009. But at the same time, the Bank rate has been at all-time record lows.

Perhaps more pertinently, inflation has fluctuated from year to year, even though interest rates have to all intents and purposes not changed. It was 4.5 per cent in 2011, and 0.7 per cent in 2016.

In short, inflation seems to lead a life of its own, independently of what the experts on the MPC either say or do.

Inflation really is a naughty boy all round. A central concept in orthodox economic thinking, encapsulated in the quote from Carney above, is that there is a tradeoff between inflation and jobs and output. The faster the economy grows and unemployment falls, the higher inflation will be.

But starting in the early 1990s, for around 15 years across the entire Western world, both inflation and unemployment experienced prolonged falls.

The idea that a central bank can control inflation by adjusting interest rates is shown by the evidence to be absurd.

It is yet another example of the limits to knowledge in orthodox macroeconomics.

As published in City AM Wednesday 25th October 2017

Image: Mark Carney by Bank of England is licensed under CC by 2.0
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Full employment in Britain has lowered productivity instead of increasing wages

Full employment in Britain has lowered productivity instead of increasing wages

The UK jobs market is booming, as the latest ONS figures show. Unemployment is at its lowest for over 40 years. A record 32.1 million people are in employment, a rise of over 3 million since the financial crisis.

Apart from in a few scattered pockets, Britain is at full employment. Usually in such circumstances, wages would start to outpace inflation. Labour shortages would lead employers to start bidding for workers, who would themselves feel more confident about demanding pay increases.

Perhaps this is starting to happen, with the TUC voting for a campaign to raise public sector wages by 5 per cent.

But a combination of immigration and a concerted government campaign to get people off benefits means that the supply of labour has risen sharply. This holds down the price of labour, the wage, in the bottom half of the labour market.

Instead, full employment manifests itself in different ways. A few anecdotes might illustrate the key points.

I recently bought a new phone, which has proved to have an intermittent fault. The Richmond branch of EE advertises both on the internet and on its doors that it opens at 9.30am. I turned up at 9.40 to find the place in darkness. I went to another EE branch, where a listless young woman informed me that she could not replace it. I asked what she could do. She replied that she could take it in for repair, but that this “would take three weeks”. I left, and she slumped back to her stupor.

Later that day, I went to see someone at a leading London university. The department receptionist asked if I had the extension number. When I said I was rather hoping he might have it, he responded that he probably did, but that it would be “hard to find”. We looked at each other in silence. Then a light bulb came on in his mind. He winked at me, and pronounced “I’ll take you up there”.

These experiences are not confined to the dynamic capital city. A few weeks ago, I visited the maths department at Durham and left my glasses behind. They offered to post them guaranteed next day delivery. I tracked the parcel on the Royal Mail website. 39 hours later, it had arrived at the Newcastle sorting centre, all of 15 miles away.

These examples of appalling service arise for two reasons. First, the very high demand for labour means that some people now in jobs are scarcely able to perform work at all. Second, many low paid workers realise they can easily get another job, so why bother making an effort in your current one?

Here is part of the answer to the so-called productivity puzzle. During the recovery from a recession, productivity, output per worker, usually rises quickly. But it has been flat.

Whether due to limited ability or a lack of incentive, the output of some workers taken on in the jobs boom is close to zero. And this drags the average down.

As published in City AM Wednesday 20th September 2017

Image: Fatigue by Shanghai is licensed under CC by 3.0
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Cautious corporates sitting on hoards of cash are to blame for our slow recovery

Cautious corporates sitting on hoards of cash are to blame for our slow recovery

The slow recovery since the financial crisis remains a dominant issue in both political and economic debate.

The economy has definitely revived since 2009, the depth of the recession, in both Britain and America. The average annual growth in real GDP has been very similar, at 2.0 and 2.1 per cent respectively. This is much better than in the Mediterranean economies, where growth over the 2009-2016 period is still negative. Even so, the Anglo-Saxon countries have not expanded as rapidly as they have done in previous recoveries.

A key reason for this is the lack of vision being shown by the corporate sector. True, highly innovative companies like Facebook have emerged over the past decade, and start ups continue to proliferate.

But the longer standing major firms in both the UK and the US have become real stick in the muds. Caution, safety first and an increasingly stultifying bureaucracy envelop them.

The contrast in the behaviour of the corporate sector in the two major financial crises of the 1930s and late 2000s makes this clear. The US national accounts only have data going back to 1929, the year before the Great Recession. But in that year, the net savings of non-financial companies was 3.5 per cent of GDP.

When the recession struck, firms ran down their accumulated cash. Between 1930 and 1934, their net savings were negative, averaging -2.4 per cent of GDP. That amounts to a shift during the recession from a surplus of $650 billion in 1929 to an annual overspend of $450 billion in today’s prices.

In the United States, during the decade prior to the crash, 1998-2007, companies on average had net savings of 2.6 per cent of GDP each year. Since 2009, this has averaged 4.0 per cent. So instead of spending their assets, as they did in the 1930s, companies this time round have simply saved more.

To be fair, American firms are gradually moving back towards their savings patterns prior to the crisis. From 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2010, net savings in 2016 were back down to 3.1 per cent. They are gradually getting their confidence back, their “animal spirits” as Keynes called it.

There are signs of this happening in Britain as well. Between 1998 and 2007, net savings by non-financial companies averaged 1.3 per cent of GDP.  From the trough of the recession to now, the annual average has been 2.7 per cent. As in the US, the figure has come down from 2009-2011, when it averaged 3.8 per cent. But firms remain cautious.

But in both the UK and the US, companies are sitting on piles of cash and lack the entrepreneurial spirit to spend it. Boards obsess about fashionable concepts such as lean and agile processes and management. At the same time they set up procurement systems more suited to the old Soviet Union in terms of the tick box mentality which prevails.

Capitalism must be seen to be delivering the goods, and many of our major companies are simply not doing this.

As published in City AM Wednesday 12th July 2017

Image: London Construction by Bonny Jodwin is licensed under CC by 2.0
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