Posts Tagged ‘Competitiveness’

Labour Costs: Who is the Outlier?

September 11, 2014 10 comments

Spain is today the new model, together with Germany of course, for policy makers in Italy and France. A strange model indeed, but this is not my point here. The conventional wisdom, as usual, almost impossible to eradicate, states that Spain is growing because it implemented serious structural reforms that reduced labour costs and increased competitiveness. A few laggards (in particular Italy and France) stubbornly refuse to do the same, thus hampering recovery across the eurozone. The argument is usually supported by a figure like this


And in fact, it is evident from the figure that all peripheral countries diverged from the benchmark, Germany, and that since 2008-09 all of them but France and Italy have cut their labour costs significantly. Was it costly? Yes. Could convergence have made easier by higher inflation and wage growth in Germany, avoiding deflationary policies in the periphery? Once again, yes. It remains true, claims the conventional wisdom,  that all countries in crisis have undergone a painful and necessary adjustment. Italy and France should therefore also be brave and join the herd.

Think again. What if we zoom out, and we add a few lines to the figure? From the same dataset (OECD. Productivity and ULC By Main Economic Activity) we obtain this:


It is unreadable, I know. And I did it on purpose. The PIIGS lines (and France) are now indistinguishable from other OECD countries, including the US. In fact the only line that is clearly visible is the dotted one, Germany, that stands as the exception. Actually no, it was beaten by deflation-struck Japan. As I am a nice guy, here is a more readable figure:


The figure shows the difference between change in labour costs in a given country, and the change in Germany (from 1999 to 2007). labour costs in OECD economies increased 14% more than in Germany. In the US, they increased 19% more, like in France, and slightly better than in virtuous Netherlands or Finland. Not only Japan (hardly a model) is the only country doing “better” than Germany. But second best performers (Israel, Austria and Estonia) had labour costs increase 7-8% more than in Germany.

Thus, the comparison with Germany is misleading. You should never compare yourself with an outlier! If we compare European peripheral countries with the OECD average, we obtain the following (for 2007 and 2012, the latest available year in OECD.Stat)


If we take the OECD average as a benchmark, Ireland and Spain were outliers in 2007, as much as Germany; And while since then they reverted to the mean, Germany walked even farther away. It is interesting to notice that unreformable France, the sick man of Europe, had its labour costs increase slightly less than OECD average.

Of course, most of the countries I considered when zooming out have floating exchange rates, so that they can compensate the change in relative labour costs through exchange rate variation. This is not an option for EMU countries. But this means that it is even more important that the one country creating the imbalances, the outlier, puts its house in order. If only Germany had followed the European average, it would have labour costs 20% higher than their current level. There is no need to say how much easier would adjustment have been, for crisis countries. Instead, Germany managed to impose its model to the rest of the continent, dragging the eurozone on the brink of deflation.

What is enraging is that it needed not be that way.

Jean-Baptiste Hollande

January 15, 2014 34 comments

 le temps est venu de régler le principal problème de la France : sa production.
Oui, je dis bien sa production. Il nous faut produire plus, il nous faut produire mieux.
C’est donc sur l’offre qu’il faut agir. Sur l’offre !
Ce n’est pas contradictoire avec la demande. L’offre crée même la demande.
François Hollande – January 14, 2014

France is often pointed to as the “sick man of Europe”. Low growth, public finances in distress, increasing problems of competitiveness, a structural inability to reform its over-regulated economy.  Reforms that, it goes without saying, would open the way to a new era of growth, productivity and affluence.

François Hollande has tackled the second half of his mandate subscribing to this view. In the third press conference since he became President, he outlined the main lines of intervention to revive the French economy,  most notably a sharp reduction of social contributions for French firms (around € 30bn before 2017), financed by yet unspecified reductions in public spending.  During the press conference, he justified this decision on the ground that growth will resume once firms start producing more. Thus, he tells us, “It is upon supply that we need to act. On supply! This is not contradictory with demand. Supply actually creates demand“. Hmmm, let me think.  Supply creates demand. Where did I read this?
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Austerity is Bad for Competitiveness

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote this piece with my friend Jean-Luc Gaffard. It is part of our ongoing thinking on the early steps of the new French administration. But I think it applies beyond France.


The French government faces a double challenge. The short run effects of the euro crisis compound a long-standing problem of competitiveness: from 1997 to 2012, the French market share fell from 5.3% to 3.3% of world exports. France is therefore suffering more than its neighbors, notably Germany, for the current slowdown.

In response to these challenges, François Hollande designed a two-arms strategy. First, he embraced austerity. To reduce public deficit to 3% next year, the French government presented a shocking 36 billion euros budget law for 2013. That will be mostly composed of tax increases. The second arm of the government strategy, a “competitiveness pact”, was, initially, aimed at shifting an important part of the burden of social security (20 billions euros) from firm contributions to the general taxation. Read more

Should Paris Go East?

December 6, 2012 1 comment

Last week I was invited to speak at a conference on the relationship between France and Germany, 50 years after the Elysée Treaty. It was an occasion to look at France’s options for the near future.

I started by highlighting the French weakness in this particular moment:

  • France suffers, like all other eurozone countries, from a protracted period of slow growth; it is the effect of the global crisis, and its vicious evolution into a local sovereign debt crisis.
  • This problem is compounded by the structural weakness of France, witnessed by its deteriorating external position in the past 15 years. A loss of competitiveness that contrasts  with the increasing strength of Germany.

The commonsensical solution seems therefore to “do like Germany”: structural reforms aimed at lower wages and lower taxes on firms, in order to improve competitiveness (I did not say it, but this of course goes together with a reduced role of the government and a leaner welfare state). Nevertheless, i pointed out  that there are a lot of “buts“, that make the solution less commonsensical than it would appear at first sight: Read more