Tagged: PRIVATE CONSUMPTION

A Glimmer of Hope in Greece

Greece just made its IMF payment due last week, indicating that the socialist government still does not think it has strong enough support among the Greek general public to secede from the euro zone. It is unlikely that any other arguments will keep them from reintroducing the drachma; high inflation – an inevitable consequence of a drachma resurrection – does not discourage socialists in other countries, such as Venezuela, from pursuing reckless domestic policies. Syriza, whose leader Tsipras is a dyed-in-the-wool Chavista socialist, wants to be the first to bring the warped ideology of Hugo Chavez to Europe, and he is not going to let his plans be spoiled by petty things like currency turbulence or 50-percent inflation like they have in Venezuela.

However, if the population generally is against a currency secession, he runs the risk of a parliamentary challenge long before the next election. His majority is very slim, and depends critically on the participation of a small nationalist party that could be peeled away by a determined opposition. In other words, Tsipras is walking a thin line to get Greece to where he wants her to be.

One of the problems with this thin line is that it does not allow for any sound economic policies. Nothing that could actually revive the chronically depressed Greek economy is permitted in under the Tsipras government’s low ideological ceiling. Therefore, the following report from Euractiv should come as no surprise:

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Thursday (9 April) that the government was restarting its privatisation programme and was committed to avoiding going into a primary deficit again. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government has been opposed to some asset sales but has promised not to cancel completed privatisations, and only review some tenders as part of the terms of a four-month extension of its February bailout program me. “We are restarting the privatisation process as a programme making rational use of existing public assets,” said Varoufakis, speaking in Paris.

This is how they are going to balance the budget: by means of one-time sales of assets. It is like selling the living room couch to pay your mortgage. What are you going to sell next month?

The previous Greek government did the same thing, obviously to no avail. In fairness, though, the Greek government has very few options. Despite some weak signs of a fledgling recovery earlier this winter, there is no clear rebound in the Greek economy.

Figure 1

GREECE cons

Private consumption, measured as four-quarter moving averages and adjusted for inflation, has stabilized a bit under €30bn per quarter. This is a substantial loss from the €37bn per quarter recorded right before the Great Recession, and it means that the Greeks have basically been sent back to 2001 in terms of standard of living.

Since private consumption is the driving force of the economy, its decline and stagnation since 2008 is the most vivid expression of the deep suffering that the Greek people has had to live through. That said, they have also asked for more by electing a socialist for prime minister whose comprehension of economics is weak, to say the least.

Tsipras, like all socialists, sees government as the indispensable economic agent; everything else is either debatable or out of the question.

With all that in mind, there is actually a flickering light in the tunnel. When Greece’s private consumption is measured per employed person, it actually looks like there is a small rebound in there:

Figure 2

GREECE cons pr emp

With consumption again measured by quarter, with four-quarter moving average adjusted for inflation, and then divided by employee, it looks like the Greeks are able to work their way up a little bit in terms of purchasing power. In the first quarter of 2011 per-employee consumption was €8,004; for the last quarter on record, Q3 of 2014 it was €8,178.

This does not look like much of an increase, but the underlying trend is weakly positive. This means that while only 54 percent of the Greek population 20-64 actually have a job, those who do are slowly beginning to establish a “new normal” of consumption. It is a normal that is characterized by stagnation, with almost no outlook toward reasonable gains in the standard of living – it is in essence life under industrial poverty – but at the very least this little rebound is an indicator that things are not going to get worse.

Ceteris Paribus, of course… And as one of my favorite economics professors from back in college loved to point out: ceteris is not always paribus. Things change. And not always for the better. Especially when you have a prime minister dedicated to the mission of bringing Chavista socialism to Europe. Come Scylla or Charybdis.

Euro-Dollar Parity, Part 2

Earlier this week I summed up some recent observations of macroeconomic differences between the United States and Europe. Those differences, which explain why the euro has plunged from $1.39 in May last year to its current $1.06, are not going to go away any time soon. I recently did an overview of the fundamentals that constitute the strength of the U.S. economy (see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4); today’s article takes a closer look at the European economy.*

As the latest national-accounts data from Eurostat reports, the European economy remains in a state of de facto stagnation. According to inflation-adjusted numbers, GDP growth for 2014 stood at 1.3 percent; while much better than 0.04 percent for 2013, a closer examination shows that it is neither impressive nor sustainable.

Unlike the growth in the U.S. economy, which originates in sustained growth of domestic, private-sector activity, Europe’s increase in growth is driven primarily by exports. In 2013 exports from the European Union grew by 2.16 percent in inflation-adjusted numbers, a number that increased to 3.53 percent in 2014.

There is a sharp contrast between these growth numbers and those for private consumption: -0.1 percent in 2013 turned into growth of 1.29 percent in 2014, hardly an impressive number.

To further emphasize the role of exports for Europe, consider the strong correlation between exports and business investments, vs. the apparent absence of consumption-investment correlation:

EU C I X

Since private consumption barely moves, businesses have no reason to invest for the domestic market. They therefore tailor their business expansions – to the extent such expansions take place – to fluctuations in foreign markets.

The dependency on exports is even more apparent at the member-state level. Over the past two years, exports has been the leading absorption variable in 17 of the 26 countries included here (Ireland and Luxembourg have not yet reported fourth-quarter data). In five of the countries exports was the only absorption category that shows any growth; in Spain private consumption barely squeezed into positive territory:

Consumption Investm. Govt cons. Exports GDP avg
Greece -0.31% -3.45% -3.61% 5.37% -1.59%
Croatia -0.94% -2.55% -0.67% 4.86% -0.68%
Netherlands -0.74% -0.76% -0.15% 2.99% 0.03%
Italy -1.24% -4.58% -0.60% 1.57% -1.06%
Cyprus -2.80% -18.00% -6.54% 0.39% -3.81%
Spain 0.09% -0.21% -1.41% 4.24% 0.07%

The long-term trend of growing dependency on exports is visible across the board in the EU. From 2011 to 2014 (4th quarters), exports share of GDP increased in 23 of the 26 member states included here.

While there is nothing wrong inherently with growing exports, there is a problem when an economy almost entirely depends on exports. Contrary to prevailing wisdom among, primarily, European economists there is no lasting positive “multiplier” effect from exports to the rest of the economy – except, as mentioned, the business investments that relate specifically to exports.

The lack of positive multiplier effects from exports to, e.g., private consumption is reinforced by the fact that government spending is the strongest or second-strongest growth variable in 15 of the 26 countries. This is remarkable: for all of EU-28 government absorption grew at an annual rate of 0.6 percent per year over the 2013-2014 eight quarters. The fact that this was enough to finish second speaks volumes to the overall weakness of the European economy.

So long as this weakness remains, there will be no reversal of the long-term decline of EU economy.

*) Eurostat, 2005 chain-linked national accounts data.

State of the U.S. Economy, Part 3

This the third installment about the current state of the U.S. economy analyzes consumer spending and consumer credit. Since private consumption constitutes almost 70 percent of GDP, it is of fundamental importance to have an essential understanding of how households spend money – and how they finance that spending.

As I noted in the first part of this article series, consumption as a share of the U.S. GDP has risen in recent years, claiming an almost four percentage points larger share of the economy today than it did 15 years ago. In the second part I explained that…

as the sole engine pulling the industrialized world forward, the United States is doing a reasonably good job. More details from the GDP growth numbers reinforce this conclusion. There is, e.g., private consumption which over the past three years has averaged 2.1 percent in annual growth. For 2014, though, the preliminary growth rate was 2.5 percent, a good but not excellent number. Underneath it, though, is some good news: spending on durable goods – household appliances, automobiles etc – has averaged 6.5 percent per year since 2012. This means two things: American families are improving their credit scores again after taking a beating in the trough of the Great Recession; and they are more optimistic about the future.

One of the concerns with strong growth in durable-goods spending is that it will come at the price of rising household indebtedness. Fortunately, American families in general are not going down the debt lane; perhaps having learned from the mortgage circus before the Great Recession, they seem to be holding back on overall borrowing:

  • In 2008 American households had a gross debt of $14.2 trillion, equal to 133.1 percent of their disposable income;
  • In 2010 their debt was down to $13.9 trillion, pushing the debt-to-income ratio down to 124.3 percent;
  • In 2012 those numbers were down to $13.6 trillion and 110.6 percent, respectively.

In 2013 household debt started increasing again, exceeding $14 trillion (by $61bn) in Q3 of 2014, the first time in almost five years. The debt-to-income ratio continued to slide, flattening out at 107.7 percent inQ2 and Q3 of 2014.

However, a more detailed look at household debt shows a relationship between debt and spending on durable goods. The small rise in household debt since 2013 is due to a rise in consumer credit, i.e., the kind of borrowing that is, e.g., often used to buy cars.

Cdg Conscred

After the deep dip during the opening of the recession, U.S. consumers soon regained confidence and began spending on long-term items. Almost immediately the ratio of consumer credit to disposable income started rising again. After it bottomed out at 21.4 percent in 2010 the ratio has increased steadily since then. The latest numbers reported by the Federal Reserve is 24.8 percent for Q3 2014.

Since 2010 durable-goods spending has grown by, on average, 4.9 percent annually in current prices. The growth rate for disposable income is almost exactly the same. Theoretically, this means that consumers should not have to increase their indebtedness as they spend more on durables, but the explanation for that increase is not by any means illogical. While the consumer credit ratio has increased, the ratio of mortgages to disposable income has declined steadily:

  • In 2008 the ratio was 97.3 percent;
  • In 2010 it had fallen to 90.7 percent;
  • In 2012 it was down to 77.6 percent.

By Q3 2014 it had declined yet more, to 71.8 percent. Compared to the mortgage-to-income ratio of 2008, U.S. households have $4.7 trillion less in mortgage loans today. This opens up for the opportunity to borrow for other purposes, such as car loans.

It is encouraging to see that American households are better off and feel more confident about their future. All is not well, of course, but the slowly improving debt situation combined with the confidence in spending on durables is yet another encouraging sign that our economy is slowly moving down the right track.

State of the U.S. Economy, Part 2

Yesterday I reported some data showing that the U.S. economy is in good shape from a structural viewpoint. Household spending and business investments – domestic private-sector activity – today absorb a larger share of output than they did under the Bush Jr. administration. Government consumption and investment spending has taken a step back, and the foreign trade balance is in better shape today than at the height of the Bush business cycle.

Today, let’s look at the same macroeconomic data from another perspective.

2. A strong growth pattern

Untitled

In terms of inflation-adjusted growth, the U.S. economy is doing relatively well. GDP growht is not great – but these numbers from 2009-2014 are far better than what we can find anywhere in the developed world:

  • 2009 -2.76 percent
  • 2010 2.53 percent
  • 2011 1.6 percent
  • 2012 2.32 percent
  • 2013 2.09 percent
  • 2014 2.41 percent

When an economy grows faster than two percent per year it provides opportunities for people to achieve a standard of living higher than what previous generations have accomplished. Growth below causes stagnation or even a decline in the average standard of living.* From this perspective the American economy is just about keeping its nose above the water. It could do much better, but two factors are holding us back: the Obama administration’s affinity for heavy-handed regulations, and the combined global effects of a China in recession, a Europe in stagnation and a Russia in Ukraine.

In other words, as the sole engine pulling the industrialized world forward, the United States is doing a reasonably good job. More details from the GDP growth numbers reinforce this conclusion. There is, e.g., private consumption which over the past three years has averaged 2.1 percent in annual growth. For 2014, though, the preliminary growth rate was 2.5 percent, a good but not excellent number. Underneath it, though, is some good news: spending on durable goods – household appliances, automobiles etc – has averaged 6.5 percent per year since 2012. This means two things: American families are improving their credit scores again after taking a beating in the trough of the Great Recession; and they are more optimistic about the future.

This optimism is corroborated by encouraging employment, which we will get to in the fourth and last part of this series.

But there is even more good news in the GDP growth numbers. Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF or business investments) has averaged a growth rate of 5.7 percent per year over the past three years. Even better: the growth rate is stabilizing. In the figure above, investments fluctuate wildly:

  • Down 26.4 percent in Q2 of 2009;
  • Up 21.1 percent in Q3 od 2010;
  • Growth plummets to 1.3 percent in Q3 2011;
  • Next growth peak is 13.5 percentin Q1 2012.

From thereon the amplitude declines, forming a “confidence cone” where the annual rate stabilizes around 5.7 percent per year. A good number, the stability of which makes it even more impressive.

At the same time, no story of capital formation is complete without a detailed look at what kinds of investments businesses make. Here, again, there is an encouraging pattern of stability. Fixed investment falls into two categories, non-residential and residential, with the former constituting about 80 percent of total fixed investment. In this group spending is divided into structures, equipment and intellectual property products. Again the proportions between the different categories remain stable over time, with the equipment category representing 45-47 percent of non-residential investments.

While homes construction was weak in 2014 – growing by only 1.64 percent – it finished strongly in the fourth quarter at 2.6 percent over Q4 2013. But the residential investment numbers for 2012 and 2013 were downright impressive: 13.5 and 12 percent, respectively.

Finally, a word about government spending. Many people unfamiliar with national accounts make the mistake of looking at total government outlays as share of GDP, whereupon they understandably get outraged about how big government is. However, in order to understand the role of government properly one has to remove the financial transactions from government spending: GDP only consists of payments for work – by labor or capital – or for products. A financial transaction such as a cash entitlement does not pay for work or products, and therefore has no place in GDP.

The government spending included in GDP is payments for teachers in public school, police officers and tax collectors, as well as products such as tasty lunches for middle-school kids and gasoline for the presidential motorcade. It is also investments such as new highways and faster trucks for the postal service.

This kind of government spending has actually been shrinking in the past few years:

  • 2011 -3.04 percent;
  • 2012 -1.45 percent;
  • 2013 -1.49 percent; and
  • 2014 -0.18 percent.

All in all, then, the U.S. economy is in reasonably good shape. This does not mean that cash entitlements such as food stamps are not a problem. They are. But with this stable macroeconomic foundation the U.S. economy is well suited to handle reforms to entitlement programs.

Check back after the weekend for the two remaining installments in this series.

—–

* The two-percent mark is arrived at through an adaptation of Okun’s Law. See:

Larson, Sven: Industrial Poverty – Yesterday Sweden, Today Europe, Tomorrow America; Gower Applied Research, London, UK 2014.

EU Economic Standstill in Details

Today it is time to review in more detail the latest national accounts data from Eurostat. A disaggregation of the spending side of GDP reinforces my long-standing statement: the European economy is in a state of long-term stagnation.

To the numbers. We begin with private consumption, which is the driving force of all economic activity. It is not only a national-accounts category, but an indicator of how free and prosperous private citizens are to satisfy their own needs on their own terms. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for economic freedom that private consumption is the dominant absorption category.

Once consumer spending starts ticking up solidly, we can safely say there is a recovery under way. However, little is happening on the consumption front: over the past eight quarters (ending with Q3 2014) the private-consumption growth rate for the EU has been 0.3 percent per year. While the increase was stronger in 2014 than in 2013, only half of the EU member states experienced a growth in consumer spending of two percent or more in the last year. The three largest euro-zone countries, Germany, France and Italy, were all at 1.2 percent or less.

One bright spot in the consumption data: Greece, Spain and Portugal, the three member states that have been hit the hardest by statist austerity, now have an annual consumption growth rate well above 2.5 percent. Portugal has been above two percent for three quarters in a row; a closer look at these three countries is merited.

Overall, though, the statist-austerity policies during the Great Recession have caused a structural shift in the European economy that may be hard to reverse. From having been a consumer-based economy with strong exports, the EU has now basically been transformed into an exports-driven economy. On average, gross exports is larger as share of GDP than private consumption.

In theory, one could argue that this is a sign of free-market trade where people and businesses choose to buy what they want and need from abroad instead. I would be inclined to agree – but only in theory. In practice, if households and businesses freely made their choices on a global market, then rising exports would correlate with rising imports and, most importantly, rising private consumption. However, that is not the case in Europe. On average for the 28 EU member states,

  • Exports has increased from an unweighted average of 59 percent of GDP in 2007 to an unweighted average of 70 percent in 2014;
  • Net exports has also increases, from zero in 2007 (indicating trade balance) to six percent of GDP in 2014 (indicating a massive trade surplus).

If the rising exports had been a sign of increased participation in global trade on free-market terms, then either of two things would have happened: consumption would have increased as share of GDP or imports would have increased on par with exports. In reality, neither has happened, which leads to one of two conclusions:

  1. There has been a massive increase in corporate investments, which if true would indicate growing confidence in the future among Europe’s businesses; or
  2. Exports is the only category of the economy that is allowed to grow because it is not subject to the tight spending restrictions imposed by austerity.

Gross fixed capital formation, or “investments” as it is often casually referred to, was an unweighted average of 26 percent in the EU member states in 2007. Seven years later it had fallen to 21 percent. This is clearly a vote of no confidence from corporate Europe. Therefore, only one explanation remains: the discrepancy between on the one hand the rise in gross and net exports and, on the other hand, stagnant private consumption and a declining investment share, is the result of a fiscal policy driven by statist austerity.

The purpose of fiscal policy in Europe since at least the beginning of the Great Recession has been to balance the government budget at any cost. If this statist austerity leads to a painful decline in household consumption or corporate investments, then so be it. As shown by the numbers reported here, years of statist austerity have depressed corporate activity. In fixed prices, gross fixed capital formation in the EU has not increased since 2011:

  • In the third quarter of 2011 businesses invested for 607.8 billion euros;
  • In the third quarter of 2014 they invested for 602 billion euros.

The bottom line here is that the only form of economic activity that brings any kind of growth to the European economy is – you guessed it – exports. But it is not just any exports. It is exports outside of the EU. How do we know that? Because of the following two tables. First, the average annual private-consumption growth rate, reported quarterly, for the past eight quarters (ending Q3 2014):

Private consumption growth
Lithuania 4.4% France 0.2%
Latvia 4.3% Denmark 0.0%
Estonia 4.0% Ireland -0.2%
Romania 2.2% Bulgaria -0.2%
Sweden 2.1% Austria -0.3%
Malta 2.0% Finland -0.4%
United Kingdom 1.7% Portugal -0.5%
Poland 1.7% Spain -0.8%
Luxembourg 1.6% Netherlands -1.1%
Germany 0.8% Greece -1.4%
Hungary 0.6% Croatia -1.5%
Belgium 0.5% Italy -1.8%
Czech Republic 0.4% Slovenia -2.1%
Slovakia 0.3% Cyprus -3.5%

With private consumption growing at less than one percent in 19 out of 28 countries, households in the EU do not form a good market for foreign exporters.

Things a not really better in the category of business investments:

Gross fixed capital formation
Ireland 7.5% Latvia -0.2%
Hungary 7.4% Slovakia -0.9%
Lithuania 6.4% France -1.1%
Malta 5.1% Czech Republic -1.5%
United Kingdom 4.5% Netherlands -1.7%
Poland 3.3% Spain -2.1%
Slovenia 2.0% Croatia -2.5%
Sweden 1.7% Luxembourg -2.5%
Estonia 1.7% Portugal -3.7%
Denmark 1.4% Italy -4.5%
Germany 0.9% Finland -5.2%
Bulgaria 0.5% Romania -6.0%
Belgium -0.1% Greece -7.3%
Austria -0.1% Cyprus -14.3%

What this means, in plain English, is that the European economy still is not pulling itself out of its recession.

But is it not possible that things have changed recently? After all, the time series analyzed here end with the third quarter of 2014. There is always that possibility, but one indication that the answer is negative is the latest report on euro-zone inflation. From EU Business:

Eurozone consumer prices fell by a record 0.6 percent in January, EU data showed Friday, confirming deflation could be taking hold and putting pressure on a historic bond-buying plan by the ECB to deliver. The drop from minus 0.2 percent in December appears to back the European Central Bank’s decision last week to launch a bond-buying spree to drive up prices. Plummeting world oil prices were largely to blame for the fall in the 19-country eurozone, already beset by weak economic growth and high unemployment, the EU’s data agency Eurostat said.

If the EU governments let declining oil prices trickle down to consumers – and avoid raising taxes in response – there could be a positive reaction in private consumption. However, lower gasoline and home heating costs will not be enough to turn around the European economy.

More on that later, though. For now, the conclusion is that Europe is going nowhere.

Flat Retail Sales Confirm Stagnant GDP

Retail trade is one of the better indicators of how an economy is doing. It is an immediate “gauge” of both confidence and private finances of consumers. Therefore, given the overall stagnant nature of the European economy, the latest report on retail trade from Eurostat has some valuable information in it:

The 1.3% decrease in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with August 2014, is due to falls of 2.2% for the non-food sector and 0.1% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel rose by 0.9%. In the EU28, the 1.2% decrease in retail trade is due to a fall of 2.1% for the non-food sector, while “Food, drinks and tobacco” remained stable and automotive fuel increased by 0.4%. The highest increases in total retail trade were registered in Malta (+1.0%), Luxembourg (+0.9%), Hungary and Slovakia (both +0.7%), and the largest decreases in Germany (-3.2%), Portugal (-2.5%) and Poland (-2.4%).

Month-to-month changes are not that important. The one detail here to note, though, is the big contraction in Germany. It is a small but noteworthy sign that the German economy, as this blog has reported before, is leaving a period of exports-driven growth and returning to the new European normal, namely stagnation.

The Eurostat memo also reported annual data:

The 0.6% increase in the volume of retail trade in the euro area in September 2014, compared with September 2013, is due to rises of 0.9% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, of 0.6% for the non-food sector and of 0.5% for automotive fuel. In the EU28, the 1.0% increase in retail trade is due to rises of 1.5% for the non-food sector and 1.2% for “Food, drinks and tobacco”, while automotive fuel fell by 0.2%. The highest increases in total retail trade were observed in Luxembourg (+12.3%), Estonia (+9.1%) and Bulgaria (+5.6%), while decreases were recorded in Finland (-3.2%), Poland (-1.8%), Denmark and Germany (both -0.8%).

Again Germany shows up on the negative side, reinforcing the impression that the largest economy in Europe is no longer its locomotive.

On the upside, there is one interesting detail worth noting. Greece has experienced three months in a row of annual, inflation-adjusted retail sales increases: four percent in June, 4.6 percent in July and 7.4 percent in August.

Is this an early sign that the Greek depression is coming to an end? Let’s hope so.

.

Nationalism or Economic Freedom

Over the past few years, Hungary has made a name for itself as one of Europe’s most nationalist countries. The nationalism that has been channeled through the Fidesz party has inspired other nationalists in Europe, as well as raised concerns among those who fear the authoritarian flank of the nationalist movement.

I normally do not want to speculate in the relations between economic growth and ideological dynamics – I do, for example, not believe that nationalism can be dismissed as the response of poor, bitter, uneducated rednecks to adverse economic challenges. That narrative is the product of ivory-tower academics suffering from serious real-life comprehension deficiency.

Nationalism is much more complicated than that. It is, on the one hand, a sound patriotic expression of love for your country. I admire American patriotism, which combines a strong belief in the founding values of this great country with a generosity and openness toward everyone willing to respect those values, assimilate and live in peace and harmony with their fellow Americans. British politician Nigel Farage and his UKIP are driven by a similar, British patriotism. Mr. Farage has my full respect and support.

On the other hand, I fear the authoritarian version of nationalism which I see lurking in the shadows behind Marine Le Pen, and which have come out in the open with full force in the Golden Dawn movement in Greece.

I cannot say definitively where Hungary’s Fidesz party stands on the scale between patriotism and authoritarianism, but I think we can get a bit of an idea from looking at what has happened in the Hungarian economy in recent years. But before we get there, let us listen briefly to what the speaker of the Hungarian parliament had to say the other day about his country’s relation to the EU. Euractiv has the story:

If the European Union wants to dictate to Hungary, then the country should consider slowly backing out of the union, Parliamentary Speaker and Fidesz MP László Kövér said on 24 October, as quoted by the Hungarian press. … Kövér said that if Brussels wants to tell a country how it should be governed, then it resembles Moscow before the change of regime in 1989. The speaker reportedly said that if this is the direction the EU takes, then Hungary should consider leaving the union. He added however that this was only “a nightmare” scenario, and that he doubted it would come to that.

There are two, somewhat disparate reasons why Mr. Kövér would say something like this. The first reason is that the EU is indeed a super-state organization that merrily gets involved in every aspect of national politics. Nigel Farage often says that 75 percent of all new laws that apply in Britain are made in Brussels. Regardless of where the exact number is, there is no doubt that the EU continuously expands its powers at the cost of national sovereignty; the EU’s disastrous mishandling of the Great Recession and the debt crises in southern EU states brought out in full force the arrogance, even borderline totalitarian, power grabbing desires that Brussels is home to. From this viewpoint it is entirely understandable that the Hungarians are frustrated with the EU.

The second reason for the speaker’s lashing out is not quite as easily understood. The Hungarian economy has taken a bad beating during the Great Recession and is still struggling to get moving again. Let us take a look at the most critical GDP component, namely private consumption:

LB Hungary

Figure 1 reports two angles of private consumption in the Hungarian economy and the EU. The solid lines, which refer to the left vertical axis, represent the consumption share of GDP in the EU (green) and Hungary (purple). The share has been stable in the EU but declined in Hungary.

If GDP has grown strongly in Hungary, then the decline in the consumption share is not much of a problem. However, from 2007 through 2013 annual inflation-adjusted GDP growth in Hungary was -0.53 percent, on average. That us worse than crisis-ridden Ireland, Spain and Cyprus, and only a hair better than Portugal and Italy. With this in mind, it is hardly a surprise that private consumption in Hungary has exhibited such a deplorable growth record as reported by the purple dashed line (reference the right vertical axis). Average for 2007-2013 is -1.45 percent, worse than all the aforementioned crisis-plagued countries.

Herein lies part of the explanation to why the Hungarian parliamentary speaker is so vocal with his EU criticism. The nationalist government has not been very strong on promoting economic freedom. According to the Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, Hungary scores poorly in key categories such as government spending, monetary freedom, property rights protection and corruption. Although Fidesz may not be pursuing an open, deliberate statist strategy, the combined effects of their policies is in fact an advancement of government at the expense of the private sector.

It is very likely that statist nationalism is now taking such a toll on the Hungarian economy that voters, taxpayers and even business men are beginning to complain, loudly. In situations like this, it is a well established strategy in politics to turn people’s attention somewhere else. What better object of popular frustration than the EU?

Hungary is a country with a long, rich and fascinating history. Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I wish the Hungarian people all the best, but I do believe it is time for them to take another look at where their nationalist leaders are taking them, politically as well as economically.

A Japanese Recovery

Last week I mentioned Japan in an article about France. Quoting an article from Forbes Magazine I made the point that Japan has been stuck in the liquidity trap for a very long time, and that the inflation the country is now experiencing is of the dangerous, monetary kind. The Japanese story illustrates why it is so dangerous for Europe to try to get out from underneath a perennial recession by aggressively expanding money supply.

The lesson for Europe stands firm: printing money when there is no demand for that money is a thoroughly bad idea, and Japan is a good example of why. From the time the Japanese deflation era started, in the late ’90s, the growth rate in the money supply accelerated. This went on for most of the next decade and a half; coincidentally, starting in the late ’90s Japan experienced almost 15 years of deflation.

It is, in other words, safe to warn the Europeans that massive expansion of the money supply will not break deflation. But it is also important to acknowledge that Japan is now showing signs of leaving deflation behind, just as the Forbes article suggested.

The problem is that the new Japanese inflation is not of the kind that Forbes suggested. I quoted the article and took its point as given – it referred to a side point in my article and therefore I accepted the conclusion of what looked like a credible source. But I also had an unrelenting feeling that I needed to look into the veracity of the point from the Forbes story. After all, if Japan had suddenly gone from deflation to inflation without an underlying upturn in real-sector activity, there would be a big case for studying the transmission mechanisms that channeled all that extra liquidity into prices.

In other words, it would have been a historic opportunity for monetarists to prove that their theory of inflation is actually true. It would be “true in the long run”, a 15-year long run, but it would nevertheless be true.

As I started digging through national accounts data it turned out that Japan is not at all entering an era of monetary inflation. The push upward on prices originates in the real sector: production, consumption and gross fixed capital formation (business investment).

Figure 1 reports inflation-adjusted growth in GDP (all data reported below is from Eurostat):

JP 1

Japanese GDP growth exhibits some volatility, but since 2011 the trend is closer to the American economy than the euro zone.

Figure 2 reports private consumption growth:

JP 2

Here the trend is actually fairly good for an economy that has been stagnant for almost two decades. It is still nothing to cheer about – Japan, like the United States, cannot break the Industrial Poverty line of two percent. But at least Japanese consumers are out there spending money, which is far more than you can say about their peers in the depressed euro zone.

Figure 3, finally, tells the story of business investments:

JP 3

This is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that the Japanese economy is in recovery mode after 15 years in the economic wasteland. Growth rates in corporate investments are not ecstatically high, but they are the best since the mid-’90s. Again, activity in the Japanese economy is showing the same modest but real recovery tendency as the American economy.

Normally, growth rates around two percent should not even come close to driving inflation. However, with 15 years of stagnant business investments there is very little excess capacity in the economy. Add to that a shrinking work force and the capacity ceiling is lower in Japan than in many other economies.

So there you have it. Japan is leaving the shadow realm of stagnation and deflation. The real sector is recovering, and with production capacity adjusted to stagnation, not growth, excess-demand inflation sets in earlier than in, e.g., the United States. Not to mention Europe.

The Japanese deserve kudos for their apparent return to growth. Let us hope they keep it up.

Consumers Drive U.S. Recovery

On Friday I reported that the European Central Bank has downgraded its growth forecast for the euro zone. This wraps up a summer of bad economic news from Europe, all together showing that there is no recovery under way. At the same time, as I have explained in a series of blogs elsewhere (Ode to the American Economy, parts one, two and three), the United States continues its sleepwalk out of the Great Recession.

The differences between the U.S. and EU economies are striking. A review of the most recent Eurostat quarterly national accounts data shows that the American economy is not only outgrowing its European counterpart, but it is also in the healthier position of being dominated by consumer spending.

Let us begin with GDP growth (using the single-currency euro zone as the proxy for Europe):

LB 9814 GDP

Over the past 20 years for which Eurostat provides quarterly, inflation-adjusted data, there are three episodes where the United States outgrows Europe. The first episode was the heydays of the ’90s, when our unemployment was trending below four percent. Europe was struggling with twice as high unemployment rates and, in fairness, the remaining issues with Europe’s reunification. That said, with the right fiscal policies the 18 current euro-zone countries could easily have enjoyed the same forceful growth as the U.S. economy was producing.

The second episode of faster U.S. growth comes between the Millennium and Great Recessions. Many would attribute this to the housing bubble, and I am inclined to agree to some extent. However, it is important not to forget the Bush tax cuts, which in two phases – 2001 and 2003 – created a one-two punch of multiplier and accelerator effects on economic activity.

Unfortunately, this was also a period of excessive federal spending. The U.S. government grew its budget by 6.7 percent per year, on average, from 2001 to 2009, with the heaviest spending growth allocated to the latter half of that period. Indirectly, this drew resources away from private-sector growth, which partly explains the weakening of GDP growth from the top in early 2004.

As for Europe, the bump in growth right before the Great Recession is not easily explained. As shown in the two charts below, neither consumption nor exports were strong enough to produce that bump.

The third episode of American dominance is the one we are in right now. Amazingly, at a GDP growth rate mostly below 2.5 percent per year, we are leaving Europe in the dust. The difference is easily explained: after the serious dip early in the recession, U.S. fiscal policy has basically been neutral, with only marginal movements in taxes and spending. In fact, after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama has been the fiscally most frugal president since before Reagan. The states have also held back their spending, and even though most states still struggle with budget problems the overall trend in taxation is weakly in favor of lower taxes.

From this viewpoint the American economy has actually for the most part benefited from the Congressional deadlock and President Obama’s passion for playing golf. Our federal government is doing the American economy a favor by doing nothing. It would of course, be better if they cut taxes, reformed away entitlement programs and deregulated, but in lieu of that it is better that they continue to do nothing while we go about our business and slowly bring this economy back to something that resembles full employment.

Europe, on the other hand, is continuing to suffer from years of government-saving austerity. Their tax hikes and spending cuts have been motivated by a desire to keep as much as possible of the welfare state through the Great Recession, with little or no regard for what happens to the private sector. The European people and their businesses are now paying the price in the form of almost zero growth, eleven percent unemployment and a grim outlook on the future.

Adding insult to this national-accounts injury, the next chart shows the role of private consumption in each of the two economies:

LB 9814 Cons

There is a simple way to show the importance of private consumption in an economy. Subtract GDP growth from the growth rate of private consumption per period observed, in this case quarters. Sum up the difference per period and divide by the number of periods. If the resulting number is negative, it means that GDP grows faster on average than private consumption; if it is positive the opposite is true. An economy where consumption grows at least as fast as GDP is an economy where the consumer is the key economic agent, where he enjoys a high degree of economic freedom and where, therefore, the free market is a major player in the rest of the economy. In a consumption-drivene economy, the dominating end purpose of productive economic activity is to win over consumer spending on a free market, hence private businesses have to operate as free-market entities as well.

The U.S. consumption growth ratio is 1.3, meaning that for the period observed here, private consumption growth exceeds GDP growth by 1.3 percent per quarter, on average. By contrast, the euro-zone economy has a ratio of -0.7, showing that growth is driven by other variables than private consumption.

Is that “other variable” exports? Let’s take a look:

LB 9814 Exports

Interestingly, since the Millennium Recession there has been no major difference in the growth rate of U.S. exports and exports from euro-zone countries. The growth rates are high, especially compared to GDP growth, which means that for the slow-growing euro-zone economy the exports sector has helped keep growth up. This explains why GDP in the euro-zone countries outgrow their own private consumption, but since strong exports growth does not translate into household spending (if it did, private consumption would grow on par with exports) this means that the euro-zone economies are increasingly dependent on foreign markets to grow at all.

With its strong private-consumption growth, the U.S. economy has a big leg up on the European economy. We are, simply, a domestically dominated economy and are much less vulnerable to ups and downs of the international business cycle. Europe’s GDP, on the other hand, basically stands and falls with spending on other continents.

Furthermore, with as big a government sector as the Europeans have, their austerity policies which raise taxes – thus diminish the private sector – and cut government spending actually depress GDP in two ends.

The compounded effect on GDP is, as shown here, rather depressing. Pun intended.

Italian Economy in Reverse

There is yet more evidence that Europe, unlike the United States, is going to remain in a state of economic stagnation for a while longer. The EU Observer reports:

Italy has slipped back into recession putting pressure on Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to fulfil promises to see through major structural reform to boost growth. The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, shrank 0.2 percent in the second [quarter], the country’s national statistics office said Wednesday (6 August).

The only quarterly number that Eurostat has released so far is the one adjusted for seasons and workdays, a number I would rarely use. However, it has its merits, too, as it comes as close as you can to linking GDP to the abstracted performance of economic agents. Compared to the same quarter 2013, this number shows a 0.3-percent drop in GDP over the same quarter 2013. Going back two years, the total decline is 2.5 percent. While the bulk of that decline took place in 2013, the country is still suffering from government-saving austerity programs designed to bring Italy into compliance with EU debt and deficit mandates.

But it is not over yet for Italy, not by a long shot. EU Observer again:

Finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan defended the government’s reform plans and said the country would not now need a corrective mini budget to stay on the right side of the EU’s fiscal rules. “The (GDP) figure is negative, but there are also positive elements. Industrial production is much better and consumer spending is continuing to increase, albeit slowly,” said Padoan

This statement is revealing of the purpose behind austerity. Everywhere in Europe, political leaders measure the success of austerity in terms of government fiscal balances; the metric never includes GDP growth. Greece is the prime example of this, where government-saving austerity peeled away one fifth of GDP in fixed prices. The Spanish encounter with austerity exemplifies similarly warped policy goal setting.

In addition, the finance minister’s statement about consumer spending is downright false. While there are no second-quarter Eurostat numbers yet on the spending of Italian consumers, first-quarter numbers are downright troubling. From Q1 2012 to Q1 2014, Italy’s consumer spending declined four percent. Over the last year, Q1 2013 to Q1 2014, the decline was a modest half-percent, but that is still a decline – not an increase.

Even if the GDP and consumption numbers indicate that the decline in Italian economic activity is coming to an end, there are no real signs of a sustainable uptick. It would be foolish to expect anything else, as the main fiscal-policy priority of the Italian government remains the same: save the welfare state. As we go back to the EU Observer, we get even more indications that nothing is really going to change for the better in the Italian economy:

The Italian PM has been among those calling the loudest for flexibility in the interpretation of the rules that govern debt and deficits in the eurozone. However other partners and the EU commission have indicated they wanted to see more structural reform undertaken first. The commission reiterated this on Wednesday and noted that Italy had already been told that it should stick to its budget plans. The other leader calling for flexibility and support from its EU partners is France’s Francois Hollande. In an interview with Le Monde recently, the French president urged Germany and the European Central Bank to do more to boost growth.

Three points.

1. The Italian prime minister’s call for more flexibility in the interpretation of the EU’s stability and growth pact is really nothing more than a request to be allowed to increase government spending. It echoes what the socialist French president has been demanding for almost two years. However, the last thing Europe needs is more government spending.

2. When European political leaders talk about “structural reform” they do not refer to the kind of reforms actually needed, namely an orderly phase-out of the welfare state. Their take on “structural” is entirely regulatory and focused mostly on the labor market. But regulations do not build a structure – they are part of it, but they are not a structure in themselves. Furthermore, it is pointless to relax labor-market regulations without permanent tax cuts and terminations of government spending programs. Deregulation is supposed to make it easier for employers to hire and fire, but if there is no more demand for labor after the deregulation than before, there won’t be any more jobs out there.

3. It is rather amusing to see how the French president is urging others, outside of his domain, to do more for economic growth. In essence, he is telling the Germans to run their economy better, so he can continue to raise hate-the-rich taxes and drive even more entrepreneurs and hard-working high-end professionals out of France.

In conclusion, there still is no case for an economic recovery in Europe. The continent is now on its sixth year of stagnation, and in some countries an outright depression. Monetary policy has now taken the entire euro zone into the liquidity trap while fiscal policy remains stubbornly fixated on government-saving austerity policies.

Youth unemployment remains stuck above 22 percent in the EU, and above 23 percent in the euro zone. An entire generation is lost.

As painful as it is to say it, Europe is turning into an economic wasteland. It is entirely self-inflicted and if the Europeans want get out of their permanent crisis, they have the solution in their hands.