Greece Starts Selling … But Not Corfu

Greece is ready to start selling assets, according to the Wall Street Journal, but Corfu and the Parthenon are not on the auction block (no surprise there).

Instead, the government figures that by selling its stakes in a bank and a betting company, as well as its share of the national telecommunications company, it can raise €2.5 billion ($3.76 billion)—the equivalent of 1% of gross domestic product, its target for this year. That would only scratch the surface of Greece’s debt—which has surpassed the country’s €250 billion-a-year GDP—but would underscore for financial markets that Athens is serious about fixing its public finances.

The government also may put up for sale its shares in 15 other companies, including the water utility in Athens, a leading oil refiner, and several casinos. The Finance Ministry also wants to get rid of some Airbus A340 planes that it owns from the years before the country’s debt-ridden national carrier, Olympic Airlines, was privatized.

P.S. I love the transliterated name of the betting company: the Organization for Prognostication on Soccer Matches.

The Legacy of the Economic Crisis

In its recent Going for Growth report, the OECD concludes that the economic and financial crisis will leave an unwelcome legacy: a permanent reduction in economic activity. This loss averages about 3% of potential GDP across the 20 member countries for which the OECD was able to make these estimates.

As the following chart shows, those losses differ greatly across countries:

Ireland and Spain are the clear losers, with the crisis cutting economic activity by more than 10%. Despite being a catalyst for much (but by no means all) of the crisis, the United States faces one of the smallest losses. The 2.4% reduction in potential U.S. GDP is a sobering hit, but is less than that faced by 16 of the other nations.

Why does the United States appear to be on track for comparatively moderate output losses? Continue reading “The Legacy of the Economic Crisis”

Living Standards, Labor, and Productivity

This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual Going for Growth report. The purpose of G4G is to benchmark economic performance among the OECD member countries and suggest pro-growth policy reforms.

My favorite chart in the report examines how GDP per capita differs so much across countries:

The first column of bars shows how GDP per capita in each country stacks up relative to a benchmark equal to the average level of the 15 richest OECD countries in 2008. (Fun fact: In prior years, the OECD used the United States as the benchmark.) As you can see, the United States has the third highest level of per capita income, topped only by Luxembourg and Norway. Looking lower down, you can see that, on average, the GDP per capita of the EU19 countries is more than 20% lower than the benchmark and more than 30% lower than in the United States.

There are two basic ways that a country can achieve a high level of GDP per capita: People can work a lot (i.e., high labor hours per person) or people can work productively (i.e., high output per hour worked). The second and third columns of bars disaggregate the income differences into those two components.

The second column shows that there are significant differences among the countries in the average number of hours worked per person. As you might expect, people in the United States work slightly more than the benchmark average of the richest 15 OECD countries. People work substantially more, on average, in some nations, most notably South Korea, Iceland, and the Czech Republic. People work substantially less in Turkey, France, and Belgium. (Keep in mind that these figures are average hours per person, so they are influenced by the age distribution of the population as well as the number of hours worked by working-age people.)

The third column shows that there are even larger differences among the countries in productivity. Most notably, all of the countries with low per capita incomes have relatively low productivity.

OECD researchers repeated this analysis for a group of emerging economies:

The productivity comparisons are striking: China, Indonesia, and India are 90% less productive than the 15 richest OECD countries. That’s an enormous gap.

The Wonders of Costa Rica

On Thursday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had a wonderful piece about Costa Rica, home of “The Happiest People“) (ht Catie).

Kristof reports that Costa Ricans are the happiest people in the world, at least according to three broad surveys. Why? Kristof offers the following hypothesis:

What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

I’m not antimilitary. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.

In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum gender gap index. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.

I like this hypothesis, but being an empirical guy, I should note another possibility: maybe one of the keys to happiness is whatever allowed Costa Rica to eliminate its military in the first place?

Over the holidays, I did some field research (aka vacation) in Costa Rica and am happy to report that the area we visited (the Guanacaste province) is indeed lovely. I won’t torment you with my travelogue here–my wife and I have another blog for that–but here are a couple photos of the local fauna:

Yes, It Is Possible to Cut Deficits

A couple weeks ago, I highlighted an IMF report that compared the fiscal challenges facing developed economies. Not surprisingly, the IMF concludes that the United States has one of the largest structural deficits. To get our national debt back down to 2007 levels (relative to the economy), the IMF believes that we need to undertake a major fiscal adjustment–equivalent to a whopping 8.8% of GDP.

I have some quibbles about that figure, not least because the United States could avoid a fiscal crisis without getting the gross government debt all the way back to 2007 levels. But the basic message is sound: we face an enormous fiscal challenge.

However, we should not give up hope. As I discuss in a new piece over at e21, the IMF report also provides some reason for optimism: history provides numerous examples of developed economies that have successfully undertaken major fiscal adjustments. Indeed, the IMF finds 30 instances during the past three decades in which countries made adjustments of at least 5% of GDP, and nine cases in which the adjustments were even larger than the IMF currently prescribes for the United States:

The United States itself makes the list, with a fiscal adjustment (i.e., reduction in the cyclically-adjusted primary budget deficit) of 5.7% back in the 1990s.

Looking through the list, you will notice that many of these large adjustments occurred, at least in part, during the economic boom of the late 1990s. That isn’t surprising: fiscal adjustment is much easier if strong economic growth reinforces responsible fiscal policies.

P.S. For related posts, see this and this.

IMF: The Lasting Effects of Financial Crises

Earlier this week, the IMF released a key chapter from the upcoming World Economic Outlook: Chapter 4: What’s the Damage? Medium-Term Output Dynamics After Financial Crises. As noted in the much pithier summary, the report concludes that:

The global financial crisis is likely to leave long-lasting scars on the world economy, but governments can act to stimulate a quicker revival and counter output losses … . The study finds that banking crises typically have a long-lasting impact on the level of output, although growth eventually recovers. Lower employment, investment, and productivity all contribute to sustained output losses.

Those conclusions are based on their review of financial crises around the world since the early 1970s. As shown in the following graph, the key finding is that after a financial crisis economic output remains below trend for years:

IMF - Lasting EffectsThe blue line shows, for example, that in the average country, output seven years after the crisis was about 10% below what would it would have been if the pre-crisis growth rate had continued.

The dotted red lines, however, highlight the enormous range of outcomes. At least one-quarter of the countries eventually had output that was above the level implied by the earlier trend; while another quarter eventually fell at least 25% below the prior trend.

The study slices and dices this result in numerous ways, trying to identify the factors that lead to better or worse outcomes. Some are bad news for the United States.

Continue reading “IMF: The Lasting Effects of Financial Crises”

Turning Guantanamo into Hong Kong

At the TED conference in Oxford last month, Paul Romer put forward a big idea: charter cities. His basic vision is that the best way to promote growth in developing countries may be to start over. Of course, you can’t just sweep away the existing system of economic and political institutions; they may be killing growth, but they are well-entrenched. So do the next best thing: clear some ground and build new charter cities.

Those cities will have rules — indeed, economic history teaches that they must have rules — but they will be focused on providing an environment that promotes economic growth. In short, property rights and the rule of law are in, corruption and political patronage are out.

His provocative example: If the U.S. gives up on Guantanamo, Raul Castro should invite the Canadians to help manage the area as a charter city. Over time, perhaps Guantanamo could become the Hong Kong of the Caribbean.

To illustrate how prosperity varies around the globe, Romer uses the increasingly popular approach of showing night time satellite photos. North Korea is a sea of darkness next to South Korea, illustrating the perils of too much government control. The darkness of Haiti, as compared to its neighbor the Dominican Republic, similarly illustrates the perils of too little government or, at least, too little governance.

As Romer frames it, development is a classic Goldilocks problem of finding the right set of rules — not too hot, not too cold — and then allowing people to make the choices that eventually lead to prosperity.

Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?

I was flipping through a report from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) recently (ht Torsten Slok) and came across this fascinating six-pack of charts:

BIS Debt Spreads

The charts show how much banks have had to pay in interest on their senior, subordinated, and guaranteed debt, relative to the interest rates of comparable government bonds. For example, the chart shows that banks in the United Kingdom have recently had to pay about 250 basis points (i.e., 2.5 percentage points) more on their senior debt than the UK government pays on its debt.

There are many interesting stories spread across these charts. For example, the red lines suggest that the first wave of investors in guaranteed bank debt in the United States and France did well for themselves (since the decline in yields implies an increase in bond prices).

But the thing that really caught my eye was the behavior of the senior debt (green) and sub-debt (blue) lines. In the five European countries, you see what you might expect: the sub-debt trades at a higher spread than the senior debt. That makes sense, since the sub-debt faces greater risk of losses. Investors demand compensation — a higher yield — for bearing that risk.

And then there’s the United States.

Continue reading “Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?”