The devilish dilemma which is the Euro zone.

It seems to be going from bad to worse in Europe, not necessarily in the economic conditions, but with the political impasse which is accompanying them. The EU basically has two options as a way out of this self imposed mess: the breaking up of the Eurozone and a return to individual currencies, or further and complete economic and political union.

The first is really not an option at all. Just to give you one example of what this would cause. In Greece, as a microcosm of the breakup, individuals and firms are taking their money out of banks and either putting then abroad, or literally hiding their euro notes under their beds. They would be doing this for rational economic reasons. If Greece left the Euro zone, the country would convert back to the drachma , with an almost certain immediate devaluation of at least 50%.  For those who had left their wealth in euros this means a doubling of their wealth in equivalence in drachmas.  But what about those who cannot do that: those on social security, those who own property in Greece, those who own businesses. They will all suffer a substantial, perhaps fatal, loss when compared to the rest of the world. Let alone the rash of writs which undoubtably will occur as people and firms seek to cover their losses in the courts.

These effects would be multiplied 100 times if the break up occurs all over Europe, leading to a worldwide depression even worse than that in the 1930s.

The second alternative is futher economic and political union. The problem with this is that voters are simply not buying it. In all democratic tests of this throughout the euro zone over the last two years, the voters in all countries are living in denial. The economic and political medicine they need to take for their survival simply is unacceptable.

God help us all if there does not emerge a sense of reality very soon, because everyone will be affected, even in prosperous, “bullet-proof “Australia.

At last, the Great Drug Debate has begun….

I’m glad to see the spirit of my post of 22 February, 2012 has started to take root. With the report recently out of an eminent persons group lead by Dr. Alex Wodak and which includes the Foreign Minister and ex-ALP NSW State Premier Bob Carr, it is safe to say the Great Drug Debate has started. Let’s hope it is filled with reason and common sense, unlike the several attempts in the past to get reason into this incredibly emotive subject.

Let the Debate begin….

Why the changes we are seeing in the world order no flash in the pan…..

The changes in the world order we have seen in the last 5 to 10 years are not only extremely profound, they are also permanent, however much that is possible. The power of the world is rapidly shifting eastwards, returning it to where it was before and during the middle ages and before the industrial revolution. The power the European states, and after that, the Americas,  acquired on the back of rapid industrialisation , was in many ways a historical accident.

Interesting academic research recently undertaken in the US looked at historical patterns of economic measures: trade flows, per capita income, population levels, capital flows, government expenditures, GDP per head – everything basically which makes the world economy function. And what were their conclusions? In 1970, the centre of the world economy was in the mid Atlantic; in year 2000, the centre had shifted to Israel; by 2020, it will shift to Tibet – the inevitable force eastwards.

The shift of power to Asia, and more particularly to India and China, returns the world to the natural order of things, driven inextricably by large populations, strong cultures, and strong commitment to education and development. Industrialization is being pushed along by a final realisation that this can only occur under free markets and open trade, and once started, and once the benefits are felt by the populations, the electorates will not allow a return to the “bad old days”.

In this, it is interesting to observe the handover of power currently underway in China. Early indications are that the progressive faction of the communist party lead by Wen Jiabao has won the ideological battle between the old ultra conservative Mao sympathisers, lead by the charismatic but ideological Bo Xilai, and those who want to uphold the rule of law and move gradually to some level of democratization.  A similar struggle is currently being played out in India, although possibly with a different outcome. The pace of reform there has slowed over the past three or four years, and there is not a clear indication of the political outcome. However, India being a democracy, a slow down in economic growth and development will inevitably cause an electoral backlash, which will eventually lead to further reforms. It is just in India everything seems to take so much longer.

Where does this leave Australia? As the only advanced Western economy (including NZ of course) at the centre of the world action. Even our current set of mediocre politicians couldn’t stuff that up. Could they?????

Why the EU doesn’t work, and other Federations do

Amongst all the angst about the so called EU melt-down, it is worth considering why the federation of Euro Countries is in such trouble and other federations (eg Canada, Australia, the US) generally are not.

The problem with the Europe project is that it is “half pregnant” ie there is a common currency, but not common fiscal and monetary policies. This means all member states accept the market price for the European currency, but they can basically do as they like with the other leavers  of economic management. This means that Greece can pay its population way above what the country can afford, and far more than most countries in the EU, and the others cannot do anything about it. Economic imbalances are inevitable in these circumstances.

Before the Euro, when each country had their own currencies, countries would be judged by the international market, and their currencies would be adjusted by that market based on their economic health. In the current circumstances, some economists are estimating the a free floating Drachma would be less than half its equivalent in Euros. This means amongst other things that Greek exports (eg tourism, shipping, olive oil) would be 50% cheaper to the rest of the world and imports would be twice es expensive, thus the Greek economy would be relatively more competitive. In the absence of this adjustment mechanism, internal adjustments have to be made: cutting pension levels, reducing real wages across the boards, recapitalising Greek Banks, substantially reducing government expenditures at all levels, in order to make Greek goods more competitive with the rest of the world. It is a hard, possibly impossible process. In fact, in my view, a Greek exit from the euro zone is even now inevitable, and they will be better off for it. If you want proof, just look what Iceland has done in the last 18 months. It is now almost back to health.

Contrast with other federations. In Australia for instance, the federal government has taxing powers and distributes monies to the states based on certain criteria. The objective of this is to even out the different growth rates in each state. At the moment, in the middle of mineral boom, the mineral states of Western Australia and Queensland are growing at over 6% per annum. The rest of the country is below 1%. The distributions of money are therefore adjusted down for those two states and increased for the others. This has the affect of smoothing out the imbalances across the country.. In this way government expenditures across Australia are controlled in the interests of responsible economic management. By the way, this is the opposite of what has happened for the first hundred years of Federation – the outlying states consistently were subsidized by Sydney and Melbourne taxpayers. Interest rates are also set by the Central bank, as are inflation and money supply targets, both of which are administered by the independent Reserve Bank of Australia.

The EU euro zone has two choices: full economic union, or break up the currency union. Until a decision is made on this, I’m afraid the euro zone will be condemned to year on year recession (like Japan has been since the mid 1990’s)

The historic Telco reform…

The announcement this morning of the formalisation of the separation of the wholesale and retail arms of Telstra is a momentious and very admirable micro-economic reform. After the government hands over the $12 billion in compensation to Telstra shareholders, we will have for the first time, all telcos in this country competing on a level playing field. This ranks with the tearing down of the tariff walls in the 1980’s, the deregulation of the banks, the reform of the labour and financial markets, as major economic reforms. Indeed, it may rank in the next 30 years as more important than any of them, but has been a government reform which has been unbelievably badly sold.

The fully connected NBN network has the potential to have as great an effect on the Australian economy and Australian society as the coming of the internet in the 1990’s. Once the society is fully connected to super-fast internet (only certain Scandinavian countries and South Korea has this now), it will produce a flowering of innovation not only in current enterprises but also will see totally new business models emerge. How about an Australia Google, Amazon or Ebay? They will not be the same – no-one knows what they will be – but we have the potential for this to happen because we will have the infrastructure which very few in the OECD will have (partly because they can not now afford it).

This is an historic opportunity. With Australia’s record as being one of the most technology savvy populations in the world, this is an unprecedented opportunity. The government needs to explain this, and get people excited about it. With our productivity performance going backwards over the last five years, this is an unparralled opportunity to reverse this.

Marginal Revolutionaries

Comment on the Economist article (31 December, 2011) “Marginal Revolutionaries”

I think it is very significant that “the Economist” has bothered to give these new emerging theories on economics serious consideration, particularly Scott Sumner’s work around NGDP. In fact, I think Sumner’s work is so significant that he will be viewed in future as a visionary, for which he could even win the Nobel Prize. Now that would really be revolutionary – a Nobel Prize winner coming not from pure academia, but from the “Blogsphere”.

It is also heartening to see original thinking emerging to tackle the extraordinary economic circumstances the world finds itself in at the moment. The Keynesians, Monetarists, or even the Austrian school do not seem to have the answers to the world’s current predicaments. Maybe Sumner has?

Bad Trade Deficits Typically Indicate Insufficient Saving

Comment on Economist article by Scott Sumner (January 2, 2012) “Bad Trade Deficits Typically Indicate Insufficient Saving”

It is important to realize the impact of policies relating to savings in Australia. Since the late 1980s Australia has had a national superannuation scheme in which every employee is required to put 9% (soon to go to 12%) into a tax protected savings pool. These are then invested (under specific guidelines) into a variety of income generating investments, about one-third of which are offshore. The size of this fund far exceeds the Singaporean model, and its investments are market driven, rather than government directed as in Singapore. In Australia also because there is so little government debt, financing of external deficits are largely done through private banks and are generally “income related” as opposed to financing recurrent expenditures.

The effect of this is that through enforced lifetime savings Australian retirement incomes are substantially funded, and the Australian economy has access to a multi trillion investment pool which it would not otherwise have. It is interesting to note that Australia is one of the few places in the world where retirement benefits for federal public servants past and present are fully funded via a future fund.

The superannuation pool also turns “the man in the street” into shareholders as much of this savings pool is invested in the stock market. It is not an accident that all mainstream media in Australia is obsessed with the performance of shares, in my view more than anywhere in the world.

There are many reasons for the Australian economic success story, but amongst the raft of economic reforms carried out in the last 30 years, the Australian superannuation model is one of the most important.

Zapatero’s Cuts

Comment on the Economist article (31 May 2010) “Zapatero’s Cuts”

There is a slow reality beginning to creep into the EuroZone. After years of bagging English speaking markets for their free market practices (which caused the GFC!!), and patronising them for their uncaring welfare free states, they have been forced down that track to survive as individual states, and as a Union.

Hopefully the crisis upon Europe will force long sought after reforms of labour markets, fiscal policies, and trade which will allow the world as a whole to operate much more efficiently and prosperously. Gone will be the days when a relatively few French and Belgium farmers can hold the whole world to ransom via the common agriculture policy ensuring (heaven forbid) that the world may at last get realism into the World Trade Talks.

Or am I living in a dream-world? Is this just another false start in Europe, and when a modicum of prosperity returns so will the same shonky practices? I very much hope not.

Flowering Friendliness

Comment in response to Economist article “Flowering Friendliness”

China is playing a game when it comes to growth rates. All the independent think tanks I have seen recently have them above 10% growth pa over the next five years. Indeed only at the weekend, Australian numbers compiled by the private sector, particularly the resources sector, has demands for raw materials returned to pre GFC number by mid year and thereafter exceeding them by 10% or more per annum.

IS China playing these numbers down to justify their misleading projection on military spend, and/or to frighten their population into lessening the demands for social and economic reforms?