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My Two Cents on the “Yellow Vests” Movement

December 12, 2018 1 comment

In a widely commented televised address President Macron  has made a last-minute attempt to stop the “yellow vests” wave, that is investing France and his presidency. After a dramatic (a bit too much to seem sincere, if you ask me) mea culpa on past arrogance, and a promise to “listen to the suffering of the people”, Macron announced a few changes to the French budget law, to sustain the purchasing power of the lower part of the income distribution. The most important and immediate changes are: an increase of minimum wage (more precisely of the “employment subsidy” that is given to most people working at or around minimum wage): the exemption from taxes and social contribution of extra hours (a very popular measure that had been introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy and later abolished by François Hollande); and last but not least, the repeal of the increase of social contributions for retirees, and the confirmation of the freezing (for at least the year 2019) of the “ecological tax” on fuel. Macron also signaled the intention to backtrack on his vertical leadership style (the président jupitérien); he pleaded for renewed role for intermediate bodies (most notably the mayors and local politicians) in putting in place a concerted effort (a “social compact”) to boost growth and social cohesion.

Will Macron’s announcement appease the uprising that inflames France? Most probably not, because they suffer from an original sin, a contradiction that the President is unwilling (or incapable) of seeing. The yellow vest protest originates from the gas price increase, that affected rural households and farmers in particular? But the malaise has much deeper roots, that are widespread. The French economy feels, after ten years, the full weight of a crisis that has hit very hard the middle and lower classes: Unemployment that fell too slowly  (costing re-election to François Hollande ; austerity that, although less marked than in the peripheral eurozone countries, has reduced the perimeter and coverage of public services and of the welfare system, while increasing the tax burden; and, finally, the reduction of family allocations and welfare in general, which particularly affected the most disadvantaged categories. All of this led to what Julia Cagé, on French daily Le Monde, called “the purchasing power crisis”, that simmered for a long time, before exploding in the past weeks.

Emmanuel Macron has an enormous responsibility for the bursting of the crisis. True, the increase in the tax burden for the middle class is mainly due to François Hollande (under the impulse of an ambitious undersecretary, and then minister of the economy, named … Emmanuel Macron). One might even argue that the budget law for 2019 reverses the trend as that the reduction of some taxes (in particular the elimination of the housing tax for the majority of households, and the flat tax on capital income) has more than offset the reduction in social benefits.

What explains then the fact that the discontent emerges, so violently, just now? The explanation is simple: it is to be found in the approach that the French President pursued since he beginning of his mandate. Like Donald Trump, with whom he disagrees on almost everything, Emmanuel Macron believes in the so-called “trickle down” theory: shifting the tax burden away from the rich is the best strategy to revive growth, because these people are more productive than the average, and invest the extra income in innovative activities. The fruits of higher growth would then percolate to everyone, even those who were initially penalized by the tax reform. From the beginning of his mandate, Macron’s choice to give France a pro-business image was clear, leading to a drastic reduction of taxes on the richest, and making the taxation, for the upper part of the distribution, fundamentally regressive.

The last budget law represents the clearest proof of this approach. The “Institute for Public Policies” has shown (see the figure, taken from a Le Monde article appeared last October) that while the overall disposable income slightly increases, the bottom 20% and the upper-middle class see a substantial worsening of their situation, while the very rich (the top 1%) see their purchasing power increase of 6%.

2018_12_12_Macron

The problem is, as an increasing body of evidence shows, that trickle down does not work. Favoring the richest does not increase productive investment (it rather tends to boost non-produced asset prices and unproductive consumption), and the impact on growth is both negligible and not shared; these days’ demonstrations stand to prove it. History cannot be rewritten, but the attempt to twist the tax system in favor of the ecological transition would probably have been met with much more enthusiasm, in a country like France where environmental awareness is high, where it not accompanied by the sentiment of increasing social injustice that Macron’s economic policies have deepened.

It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that traditional media have given a somewhat distorted image of the protest movement (which is very hard to clearly decrypt). A group of researchers from Toulouse University uses lexicographic analysis to show that the narrative of traditional media was centered on revolt against taxes (ras-le-bol fiscal), and therefore in contradiction with the request of better public services;  this does not correspond to the message coming from social networks that organized “from the bottom” the movement, in which instead the predominant mood was revolt against social injustice and against the elites that grow richer and richer, while leaving the check for the others to pay. To sum up, a plea for a more equal and cohesive society.

How will this end? It is hard to say. The yellow vests have obtained a partial win, with the freezing of the gas increase, and with the measures announced by Macron on Monday. But it is unlikely that we will see a substantive change of economic policy, precisely because of the President’s views outlined above. He rushed to rule out any reinstatement of the wealth tax, because “in the past unemployment increased even when the wealth tax existed” (a rather unconvincing argument, to say the truth).

If higher incomes are not called to contribute to the effort (towards ecological transition, but more generally towards the financing of the French social model), even the measures just announced will have a very limited impact. The State will somehow have to take back with one hand (for example by reducing public services, that benefit lower income most, or increasing other taxes) what it just handed out with the other hand. The demand for social justice that confusedly emerges from the yellow vests movement will once more go unanswered, leaving untouched the tension that is ripping the French (and not just the French) society.

To meet these needs, a new political proposal would have to put the complex theme of the redistribution of resources in a globalized world at the center of its project. It would be necessary to rediscover the “Regulatory State” which, in the golden years of social democracy (and of the social right), guaranteed social and macroeconomic stability, and thus laid the foundations for investment, innovation, and growth. That role is more difficult to define in a globalized world in which individual States have limited room for maneuver, and in which therefore international cooperation, however difficult, is now the only way forward. But this challenge can not be avoided if we do not want movements such as those of yellow vests to fall prey to nativist autocratic populism.

 

(This is the translation of a piece I published in Italian on the Luiss Open website)

A German Model?

September 23, 2017 2 comments

Tomorrow Germany votes, and there is little suspense, besides the highly symbolic question of whether the far right will make it into the Bundestag.

Angela Merkel will be Chancellor for the fourth time, marking a long period of political and policy stability. In the past fifteen years Germany emerged as the model to follow for the other large economies. For since its economy has performed better, in terms of growth and unemployment, than France or Italy.

I have at discussed at length, here and elsewhere, the costs of the German success in terms of global imbalances and uncooperative behaviours. Last week I wrote a piece for the newly born magazine LuissOpen (Ad: Follow it on twitter! There is plenty of interesting content well beyond economics! End of Ad).

The piece lists, in a non exhaustive way, a number of weaknesses that can be spotted behind the shining macroeconomic results, and also argues that there is much more than labour market liberalization behind a successful economic model (including in Germany).

The original piece can be found here (and here in Italian). I copy and paste it below

Three months after his commencement, Emmanuel Macron delivered last week one of the most important, and controversial, promises of his agenda. The loi travail that will become operational in the next few weeks mostly deals employment protection, which is weakened especially for small and medium enterprises. The aim is to lift constraints for firms hiring, and thus increase employment. This first set of norms should be followed in the next weeks or months by norms aimed at improving training and employability of unemployed workers. Once completed, the package would be the French version of the flexicurity that Scandinavian countries put in place in the past, with different degrees of success.

Without entering into the details of the law, the set of norms approved by the French government, just as the Italian Jobs Act voted in 2014, is a bold step towards the flexibilization of  labour market relations that Germany has in place since the early years 2000, with the so-called “Hartz Reforms”. The German experience, and to a minor extent the first few years of application of the Job Act, can help understand how the French labour market could evolve in the next few years.

Germany in fact sets itself as an example. The argument goes that the reforms it implemented in 2003-2005, did liberalize labour markets, and since then, with the exception of the first years of the crisis, unemployment has been steadily decreasing. But in fact, this is a misleading example, because the Hartz reforms were embedded in a complex institutional setting, which goes well beyond labour market flexibility.

First, an important segment of the German labour market, the one linked to manufacturing and business services, has always been ruled by long-term agreements between employers, workers, and local work councils. For these insider workers a system of work relations was in place, in which highly paid workers acquired skills through vocational training (within or outside the firm), and were protected by an all-encompassing welfare system. Vocational training created robust bonds between the firms, that had often invested substantial resources in the training, and the workers, whose specific skills could not easily be transferred to other sectors or even to other firms.

At the turn of the century, globalized markets coupled with the aftermath of the reunification, exerted a serious pressure for a restructuring  of labour relations.  This restructuring happened through a consensus process that did not involve the government, and kept untouched the bond between the firm and the worker created by vocational training.

The mutual interest in preserving the long-term relationship between workers and firms in the insider markets, led to agreements aimed at reducing costs or to increase productivity without increasing turnover or reducing average job tenure. These agreements could involve on the workers’ side labour sharing, flexibility in hours and in labour mobility, wage concessions, reductions in absenteeism. In exchange for this, firms would guarantee continued investments in innovation and in the (vocational) training of workers, and job security.

It is crucial to understand that the Hartz reform did not touch the insiders market (manufacturing, finance, insurance and business, etc), that as we just said had already begun restructuring without government intervention. The reform made the welfare system less generous, while  allowing access to benefits even for workers with low earnings, thus de facto introducing incentives to low-paid jobs. Furthermore, it liberalized temporary work contracts, and made more flexible a few sectors subject to competition from posted workers (i.e. construction).

The combined result of reforms and endogenous restructuring yielded a spike in part time jobs, and an increase of employment. But it also widened the gap in earnings and in protection between workers in the export-oriented sectors and the others.

The second feature of the German system that made it resilient during the crisis is the existence of a dense network  of local public savings banks (the Sparkassen). Savings bank were a defining feature of the banking sectors of a number of European countries (e.g. Spain, Italy), but have progressively become marginal. Germany is therefore an exception in that its local savings banks are still a pillar of its economy.

Local savings banks have specific public interest missions, as they are involved in the development of local communities, and in financing households and firms (in particular SMEs). The law only allows operation within the region of competence, which shields them from competition while keeping them close to their stakeholders. Similarly, the ambit of their operations is limited (for example, they face limits in their capacity to engage in securities trading or in excessively risky financing).

To avoid that these limitations hamper their effectiveness and their solidity, the banks work as a network  among them. The network exhibits economies of scale and of scope, while remaining close, in its individual components, to local communities. Furthermore, the existence of solidarity mechanisms (rescue funds) ensures that temporary difficulties of a bank are tackled without spreading contagion.

The major private commercial banks, very active in international markets, did suffer like in most other countries, were a drain on public finances, and drastically contracted their lending to the real sector. The Sparkassen on the other hand kept their financing steady (especially to SMEs) and required virtually no state aid. As a consequence, the local savings banks cushioned the impact of the financial crisis on the German economy, and their continued financing of firms is certainly a major factor in explaining the quick rebound of the German economy after 2010.

If taken together, the banking sector and the labour market institutions design a remarkably efficient system, geared towards the establishment of long run relationships in which the interests and the objectives (between entrepreneurs and workers, between banks and firms) were aligned.

But this effectiveness did not come without costs. From a macroeconomic point of view, profitability and competitiveness increased, but also precautionary savings, induced by a less generous welfare state, and by the increased uncertainty faced by workers. The “success” of the German export-led economy, that had a 9% current account surplus in 2016, is based on the compression of domestic demand, and on a labour market that is increasingly split in two, and in which inequality increased dramatically.  The low unemployment that should make other countries envious hides a massive increase of the so-called working poor. (See figure 2 here)

I would push this even further: the Hartz Reform had a strong impact on labour market dualism and precariousness, but only a minor one in explaining the resilience of the economy. A recent CER policy brief makes a somewhat similar point.

Following the Jobs Act, the Italian labour market seems to be headed in a similar direction as the German one. The recent data released by ISTAT on labour market development certified the return of employed people to the pre-crisis peak (2008), thus marking, symbolically the end of the crisis. Yet, GDP is still 7% below its 2008 level, meaning that the increase of employment happened in low value added sectors (such as for example tourism and catering), and often with part-time contracts. These are typically sectors with low and very low wages, and stagnant productivity dynamics. At the same time, wages (but not employment) increase in manufacturing-export oriented sectors. The Italian labour market, in a sentence, is heading towards the same dualistic structure that characterizes the German one. This explains why, like in Germany, Italian domestic demand stagnates; why the increase in employment is obtained at the price of increased precariousness and of the working poor; why, finally, while the numbers say that the crisis is beyond us, the actual experience of households is often different. Italy, and to a minor extent Germany, are the best proof that employment and growth do not necessarily go hand in hand with increased well-being.

Focusing exclusively on labour market flexibility, Italy and in France only imported one element of the German “model”; and probably the one that is by far the least important.  The German capacity to put in place long term relationships, the real key to economic resilience success, is lost in our countries.

Overheat to Raise Potential Growth?

March 19, 2014 4 comments

Update, March 20th: Speaking of ideological biases concerning inflation, Paul Krugman nails it, as usual.

On today’s Financial Times, Phillip Hildebrand gives yet another proof of unwarranted inflation terror. His argument is not new: In spite of the consensus on a weak recovery, the US economy may be close to its potential , so that further monetary stimulus would eventually be inflationary.

He then deflects (?) the objection that decreasing unemployment reflects decreasing labour force participation rather than new employment, by suggesting that it is hard to know how many of the 13 millions jobs missing are structural, i.e.not linked to the crisis. I think it is worth quoting him, because otherwise it would be hard to believe:

However, an increasingly vocal group of observers, including within the Fed, posits that more of the fall in the participation rate appears to have been structural than cyclical, and it was even predictable – the result of factors such as an ageing workforce and the effect of technology on jobs.

(the emphasis is mine). Now look at this figure, quickly produced from FRED data: Read more

Supporting Aggregate Demand in Fiscally Constrained Economies

June 5, 2013 6 comments

In the past weeks I have argued at length that  the eurozone is in recession because of a strong contraction of aggregate demand; and that in spite of this fact the overall fiscal stance is restrictive.

I also argued that in the current situation the best that can be hoped for peripheral countries is a more gradual consolidation (ideally a neutral stance, but this is too much to ask). I do believe that a fiscal expansion, even in the periphery, would be sustainable and growth-enhancing. But at this stage this is just daydreaming. It won’t happen.

The fiscal stance of the eurozone will not become expansionary (as is sorely needed), if the core (and in particular Germany) does not implement robustly expansionary fiscal policies.

If their fiscal space is limited or non-existent, what can peripheral countries do, besides waiting for an improbable fiscal stimulus in Germany? A lot, actually. If public demand cannot be significantly increased (and will actually be further compressed, albeit at a slower pace), it is all the more important that the governments of Italy, Greece, Spain and so on, find ways to restart private demand.

There is a lot of discussion about structural reforms. They are not the answer. First, because they have an impact mostly on supply (and the problem, let me repeat it, is demand); second, because their benefits, if any, won’t materialize before a few years. And there is no time. The cumulate effect of five years of crisis is now threatening social cohesion in most peripheral countries.

A more straightforward policy, that could be implemented in the next few months with immediate effects, is a strong redistribution of the tax burden towards higher incomes. The increasing inequality of income of the past three decades is in my opinion one of the deep causes of the crisis;  inequality has further increased since 2008. The squeeze of revenues for low incomes, coming from the combination of high unemployment and fiscal adjustment, is depressing both the capacity to spend and the morale of households. Increased inequality contributed to global imbalances in the past, and  is recessionary in the current crisis.

In September, when the season of budget laws begins, governments in the periphery should propose to their parliaments revenue-neutral tax adjustments, lowering taxes on low income households and increasing them on the rich and very rich. This would be fair, and more importantly, effective to boost morale and consumption. I am talking about a substantial shift of the burden, large enough for its macroeconomic impact to be significant. This is all the more necessary if standard Keynesian deficit spending can not be implemented.

Increasing Inequality: Predation or Skill Bias?

February 3, 2013 2 comments

Thanks to Mark Thoma I have read a very interesting piece by David Altig on technological change and inequality. Altig weighs in the debate that Bob Gordon started a few months on the possible slowdown of trend productivity in the next decades. Bob’s argument is known, and makes sense: no current innovation, not even the fanciest ones, seems to have the potential to change our life as did railroads, jet planes, or, even more importantly, running water! But it is undeniable that he ventured in uncharted lands (innovation, future inventions, the future), and I am in the end incapable to take sides on the issue. I am just very satisfied that Bob’s argument is taken seriously, even by those opposing it.

I found interesting Altig’s remark that “game-changing technologies have, in history, been initially associated with falling capital prices, rising inequality, and falling productivity“. He ends asking whether these trends, that we are nowadays observing, could be the indicator of yet another major “game changer”. But this is also not what I want to point out. 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

Wages and Unemployment

June 1, 2012 2 comments

The April data on Italian unemployment are out, and they look no good. Not at all. The overall rate (10.2%)  is at its maximum since the beginning of monthly data series (2004), and youth unemployment is  above 35%. The rest of Europe is not doing any better, with more than 17 millions people looking for a job in the eurozone alone.

We already knew. The latest data just add to the bleak picture. We also know (I discussed it) what the consensus diagnosis is: Too many rigidities, excessively high labour costs, both because of wages and of  taxes on labour (the so-called tax wedge). Therefore, let’s have lower wages, and all will be well! Unemployment will disappear, growth will resume. Mario Draghi said it rather nicely:

Policies aimed at enhancing competition in product markets and increasing the wage and employment adjustment capacity of firms will foster innovation, promote job creation and boost longer-term growth prospects. Reforms in these areas are particularly important for countries which have suffered significant losses in cost competitiveness and need to stimulate productivity and improve trade performance.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. What about looking at a few data? It is simple to download them  from the website of Eurostat.
Read more…