Monday, July 16, 2018

16/7/18: Wither Free Market America

Prior to the 1990's, “U.S. markets were more competitive than European markets”, with the U.S. having a lead-start on the EU of some decades, if not centuries, when it comes to the anti-trust laws and anti-true enforcement. In fact, as noted by Germán Gutiérrez and Thomas Philippon in their new paper “HOW EU MARKETS BECAME MORE COMPETITIVE THAN US MARKETS: A STUDY OF INSTITUTIONAL DRIFT” (NBER Working Paper 24700 June 2018), it was Europe that largely copied the U.S.  legal and regulatory frameworks for dealing with excessive concentration of the market power. Thus, given the “initial conditions, one would have predicted that U.S. markets would remain more competitive than European (EU) markets.” Except they did not. As Gutiérrez and Philippon show, the U.S. “experienced a continuous rise in concentration and profit margins starting in the late 1990s. And, perhaps more surprisingly, EU markets did not experience these trends so that, today, they appear more competitive than their American counter-parts.”

“Figure 1 illustrates these facts by showing that profit rates and concentration measures have increased in the US yet remained stable in Europe. In addition, note that the U.S the increased integration among EU economies essentially shifts the appropriate measure of concentration from the red dotted line towards the blue line with triangles – which further strengthens the trend."

Figure 1: Profit Rates and Concentration Ratios: US vs. EU

Source:  Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018)

So, in summary, today, “European markets have lower concentration, lower excess profits, and lower regulatory barriers to entry.” even looking at specific industries “with significant increases in concentration in the U.S., such as Telecom and Airlines, and show that these same industries have not experienced similar evolutions in Europe, even though they use the same technology and are exposed to the same foreign competition” (see chart below).

Source:  Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018)

Of course, the point of reduced degree of competition in the U.S. markets is hardly new. I wrote about this on numerous occasions, including covering evidence on the U.S. markets monopolization, oligopolization and markets concentration risks (see links here: and I wrote about these phenomena in the context of the growing trend toward de-democratization of the U.S. politics (see:  Hence, the main issue with this evidence is: “what explains the U.S. trend in contrast to the EU?”

Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) argue that politicians care about consumer welfare but also enjoy retaining control over industrial policy. We show that politicians from different countries who set up a common regulator will make it more independent and more pro-competition than the national ones it replaces.” In other words, once politicians surrender control to a multinational institution (e.g. the EU or ‘Brussels’ or, in the case of Switzerland, to the umbrella-type Federal Government), they tend to favour such new institutional arrangement to be more independent from national politics.

Hence, as Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) more, “European institutions are more independent than their American counterparts, and they enforce pro-competition policies more strongly than any individual country ever did. Countries with ex-ante weak institutions benefit more from the delegation of antitrust enforcement to the EU level. “ These dynamics are reflected in the switch from the ’average of the nation states’ red dotted line in the chart above, toward a unified EU-wide measure reflected by the blue line.

This theoretical view produces three treatable hypotheses: if Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) are correct, then:
1. EU countries agree to set up an anti-trust regulator that is tougher and more independent than their old national regulators (and the US)
2. US firms spend more on lobbying US politicians and regulators than EU firms.
3. Countries with weaker ex-ante institutions benefit more from supra-national regulation.

For Hypothesis 1, the authors look at merger and non-merger reviews and remedies that form “an EU-level competency”. Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) “show that DG Comp is more independent and more pro-competition than any of the national regulators, including the U.S.” Furthermore, “enforcement has remained stable (or even tightened) in Europe while it has become laxer in the U.S.” More ominously (for the consumption-based economy like the U.S.), product market regulations, usually a shared competency between the member state and the EU, the authors “find that the EU has become relatively more pro-competition than the U.S. over the past 15 years. Product market regulations have decreased in Europe, while they have remained stable or increased in the U.S.”

For Hypothesis 2: Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) look at political expenditures, and show that “U.S. firms spend substantially more on lobbying and campaign contributions, and are far more likely to succeed than European firms/lobbyists.”

For Hypothesis 3: Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) show that “EU countries with initially weak institutions have experienced large improvements in antitrust and product market regulation. Moreover, we find that the relative improvement is larger for EU countries than for non-EU countries with similar initial institutions.”

There is, of course, a remaining issue left unaddressed by the three hypotheses above: does more enforcement by more independent regulators inhibit innovation and competition? In other words, is European advantage over the U.S. a de facto Trojan Horse by which inhibiting regulation enters the markets? Gutiérrez and Philippon (2018) “find no evidence of excessive enforcement in Europe: enforcement leads to lower concentration and profits but we find no evidence of a negative impact on innovation. If anything, (relative) enforcement is associated with faster future (relative) productivity growth, although the effects are small.”

So, put simply, part of the increasing market concentration and power in the U.S. can be explained by the tangible politicization of the American regulatory environment. Of course, as noted in my own posts on the subject (see link above), this political channel for monopolization reinforces industry structure channel (ICT ‘disruption’ channel) and other channels that support increased market power for dominant firms. All of this, taken together, means one thing: the U.S. is falling dangerously behind in terms of the degree of its economy openness to challengers to the dominant firms, resulting in barriers to entrepreneurs, innovators and smaller enterprises. The costs of this ‘Google Syndrome’ are mounting, ranging from depressed wages, to jobs insecurity, to lack of investment and productivity growth, to growing voters unease with the status quo.

The premise of the Free Markets America no longer holds. Worse, Social(list) Europe is now beating the U.S. in its own game.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

14/7/18: Elephants. China Shop, Enters a Mouse: Global Debt Bubble

Bank for International Settlements Annual Report for 2018 has a very interesting set of charts covering the growing global debt bubble, one of the key risks to the global economy highlighted in the report.

First, levels:

  • Global debt rose from 179% of GDP at the end of 2007 to 217% at the end of 2017 - adding 38 percentage points to the overall leverage carried by the global economy.
  • The rise has been more dramatic for the Emerging Economies, with debt levels rising from 113% of GDP to 176% between the end of 2007 and the end of 2017, a net addition of 63 percentage points.
  • Advanced economies faired somewhat better, posting an increase from 233% of GDP to 269%, a net rise of 36 percentage points.
  • As it stood at the end of 2017, Global Debt was well in excess of x3 the Global GDP - a degree of leverage not seen in the modern history.

As noted by BIS: “ markets are overstretched, as noted above, and we have seen a continuous rise in the global stock of debt, private plus public, in relation to GDP. This has extended a trend that goes back to well before the crisis and that has coincided with a long-term decline in interest rates".

Next, impacts of monetary policy normalization:

As the Central Banks embark on gradual, well-flagged in advance and 'orderly' overall rates and asset purchases 'normalization', the global economy is likely to bifurcate, based on individual countries debt exposures. As the chart above shows, impact from a modest, 100bps hike in rates, will be relatively significant for all economies, with greater impact on highly indebted countries.

Per BIS: "Since the mid-1980s, unsustainable economic expansions appear to have manifested themselves mainly in the shape of unsustainable increases in debt and asset prices. Thus, even in the absence of any near-term market disruptions, keeping interest rates too low for too long could raise financial and macroeconomic risks further down the road. In particular, there are reasons to believe that the downward trend in real rates and the upward trend in debt over the past two decades are related and even mutually reinforcing. True, lower equilibrium interest rates may have increased the sustainable level of debt. But, by reducing the cost of credit, they also actively encourage debt accumulation. In turn, high debt levels make it harder to raise interest rates, as asset markets and the economy become more interest rate-sensitive – a kind of “debt trap”."

Thus, the impetus for rates and monetary policies normalisation is the threat of continued debt bubble inflation, but the cost of such normalisation is the deflation of the debt bubble already present. In other words, there's an elephant and here's the china shop.

"A further complication in calibrating normalisation relates to the need to build policy buffers for the next downturn. Indeed, the room for policy manoeuvre is much narrower than it was before the crisis: policy rates are substantially lower and balance sheets much larger". And here's the mouse: cyclically, we are nearing the turning point in the current expansion. And despite all the PR releases about the 'robust recovery' current up-cycle in the global economy has been associated with lower growth rates, lower productivity growth, lower real investment (as opposed to financial flows), and more debt than equity (see

In other words, things are risky, but also fragile. Elephants in a china shop. Enters a mouse...

14/7/18: The Second Longest Recovery

One chart never ceased to amaze me - the one that shows just how unimpressive the current 'second longest in modern history' recovery (and only 9 months shy of it being the 'first longest') has been, and just how sticky the adverse shocks impacts can be in modern crises that can be best described by the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environment:

The fact that the current recovery cycle has been weak is only one part of the story, however, that would be less worrying if not for the second part. Namely, that almost every successive recovery cycle in the past three decades has been weaker than the previous one.

Here is a handy summary of the recovery cycles in the last four recessions based on annual data, for real GDP and real GDP PPP-adjusted:

Friday, July 13, 2018

12/7/18: Technology, Government Policies & Supply-Side Secular Stagnation

I have posted about the new World Bank report on Romania's uneven convergence experience in the previous post (here). One interesting chart in the report shows comparatives in labour productivity growth across a range of the Central European economies since the Global Financial Crisis.

The chart is striking! All economies, save Poland - the 'dynamic Tigers of CEE' prior to the crisis - have posted marked declines in labour productivity growth, as did the EU28 as a whole. When one recognises the fact 2008-2016 period includes dramatic losses in employment, rise in unemployment and exits from the labour force during the period of the GFC, and the subsequent Euro Area Sovereign Debt Crisis - all of which have supported labour productivity to the upside - the losses in productivity growth would be even more pronounced.

This, of course, dovetails naturally with the twin secular stagnations thesis I have been writing about in these pages before. In particular, this data supports the supply-side secular stagnation thesis, especially the technological re-balancing proposition that implies that since the late 2000s, technological innovation has shifted toward increasingly substituting sources of economic value added away from labour and in favour of software/robotics/ICT forms of capital:

Human capital is the only offsetting factor for this trend of displacement. And it is lagging in the CEE:

But the problem is worse than simple tertiary education figures suggest. Current trends in technological innovation stress data intensity, AI and full autonomy of technological systems from labour and human capital. Which implies that even educated and skilled workforce is no longer a buffer to displacement.

As the result, in countries like Romania, with huge slack in human capital and skills, investment is not flowing to education, training, entrepreneurship and other sources of human capital uplift:

While barriers to entrepreneurship remain, if not rising:

In effect, technological innovation in its current form is potentially driving down not only productivity growth, but also labour force participation. The result, as in the economies of the West:

  1. Notional large scale decline in official unemployment (officially unemployed numbers are down)
  2. Significant lags in recovery in labour force participation (hidden unemployed, permanently discouraged etc numbers are up)
  3. The two factors somewhat offset each other in terms of superficially boosting productivity growth (with real productivity actually probably even lower than the official figures suggest)
These three factors contribute to an expanding army of voters who are marginalised within the system.

Romania is a canary in the European secular stagnation mine. 

12/7/18: Romania's Uneven convergence Path: 2007-2018

A new World Bank report, led by Donato De Rosa, covers Romania's reforms and economic development experience. Worth a read! |
"From Uneven Growth to Inclusive Development : Romania's Path to Shared Prosperity"

Quick summary:

  • "Romania’s transformation has been a tale of two Romanias: one urban, dynamic, and integrated with the EU; the other rural, poor, and isolated."
  • "Reforms spurred by EU accession boosted productivity ...GDP per capita rose from 30 percent of the EU average in 1995 to 59 percent in 2016."
  • "Today, more than 70 percent of the country’s exports go to the EU, and their technological complexity is increasing rapidly... the gross value added of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in GDP, at 5.9 percent in 2016, is among the highest in the EU."
  • "Yet Romania remains the country in the Union with by far the largest share of poor people, when measured by the $5.50 per day poverty line (2011 purchasing power parity)".  More than 26% of country population lives below that poverty line, "more than double the rate of Bulgaria (12%)."

  • "While Bucharest has already exceeded the EU average income per capita and many secondary cities are becoming hubs of prosperity and innovation, Romania remains one of the least urbanized countries in the EU, with only 55 percent of people living in cities."
  • "Overall, access to public services remains constrained for many citizens, particularly in rural areas, and there is a large infrastructure gap, which is a drag on the international competitiveness of the more dynamic Romania and limits economic opportunities for the other Romania in lagging and rural areas."
The positive effects of Accession were frontloaded, when it comes to structural reforms:
  • "Romania was invited to open negotiations with the EU in December 1999.  Until Romania joined in January 2007, EU accession remained an anchor for reforms, providing momentum for the privatization and restructuring of SOEs and for regulatory and judiciary reforms."
  • "Output gradually recovered, and until 2008 the country enjoyed high but volatile growth... Unemployment was on a declining trend, but youth and long-term unemployment remained elevated. Skills and labor shortages became increasingly widespread. High inactivity persisted stubbornly, particularly among women. Gains in labor force participation were modest overall. ...Inequality increased further, as large categories of people—the Roma in particular—continued to be excluded from the benefits of growth."
  • "Although output has recovered since 2008, institutional shortcomings have compounded the effects of the crisis, contributing to significant setbacks in poverty reduction, and are again leading to macroeconomic imbalances."
  • "Fiscal consolidation during 2009–2015 has helped place economic growth on a strong footing. However, lack of commitment and underfunding for the delivery of public services and poor targeting of social programs have contributed to the negative income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (the so-called bottom 40) in 2009–2015, with poverty remaining above pre-crisis levels, and inequality still among the highest in the EU."

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018

6/7/18: Central Bank of Russia Injects Capital in Three Lenders, Continues Sector Restrcturing

Reuters reported ( on Central Bank of Russia (CBR) setting up a 'bad bank' to resolve non-performing assets in three medium- large-sized banks that CBR controls. In 2016, the CBR took over control over three medium- large-sized banks, Otkritie, B&N Bank and Promsvyazbank. Last month, the CBR announced an injection of RB 42.7 billion of funds to recapitalise Otkritie with funds earmarked to cover losses in Otkritie's pension fund.  Most Bank received RB37.1 billion in new capital. The CBR also deposited RB 174.2 billion (USD2.78 billion) in three banks (RB63.3 billion of which went to Otkritie) on a 3-5 years termed deposit basis.

The funds will be used to reorganise banks operations and shift non-performing and high risk assets to a Trust Bank-based 'bad bank' which will operate as an asset management company.

After divesting bad loans, Otkritie is expected to be sold back to private investors.

CBR's total exposure to troubled banks is now at RB 227 billion (USD3.5 billion), with CBR having spent RB 760 billion (USD 12 billion) on its overall campaign to recapitalise troubled lenders. CBR holds RB 1.3 trillion (USD30 billion) on deposit with lenders it controls.

As BOFIT note: "...the CBR to date has used over 45 billion USD (about 3% of 2017 GDP) in supporting the three banks that it took over last year. Some of this amount, however, should be recovered when assets in banks acquired by the CBR are sold off as well as in the planned privatisations of the banks." At the beginning of June, Otkritie stated that the bank aims to float a 15-20% stake in 2021. The bank said t's target for pricing will be "at least 1.3 times the capital the bank has at the end of 2020". Otkritie targets return on equity of 18% in 2020, and so far, in the first five months of 2018, the bank made RB 5.4 billion in net profit, per CBR.

Otkritie ranked sixth largest bank in Central and Eastern Europe by capitalisation by The Banker in 2017 prior to nationalisation. Following nationalisation, Otkritie ranked 16th in CEE, having lost some USD2.4 billion in capital.

Another lender, Sovetsky bank from Saint Petersburg lost its license on July 3. The bank gas been in trouble since February 2012 when the CBR approved its first plans for restructuring. In February 2018, the bank was in a "temporary administration" through the Banking Sector Consolidation Fund. The latest rumours suggest that Sovetsky deposits and loans assets will retransferred to another lender.  Sovetsky was under original administration by another lender, Tatfondbank, from March 2016, until Tatfondbank collapsed in March 2017 (official CBR statement, and see this account of criminal activity at the Tatfondbank: and Tatfondbank's tangible connection to Ireland's IFSC was covered here:

Overall, CBR have done as good a job of trying to clean up Russian banking sector mess, as feasible, with criminal proceedings underway against a range of former investors and executives. The cost of the CBR-led resolution and restructuring actions has been rather hefty, but the overall outrun has been some moderate strengthening of the sector, hampered by the tough trading conditions for Russian banking sector as a whole. A range of U.S. and European sanctions against Russian financial institutions and, more importantly, constant threat of more sanctions to come have led to higher funding costs, more acute risks profiles, lack of international assets diversification, and even payments problems, all of which reduce the banking sector ability to recover low quality and non-performing assets. The CBR has zero control over these factors.

Russia currently has 6 out of top 10 banks in CEE, according to The Banker rankings:


These banks are systemic to the Russian economy, and only the U.S. sabre rattling is holding them back from being systemic in the broader CEE region. This is a shame, because opening up a banking channel to Russian economy greater integration into the global financial flows is a much more important bet on the future of democratisation and normalisation in Russia than any sanctions Washington can dream up.

As an aside, new developments in the now infamous Danske Bank case of laundering 'blood money' from Russia, relating to the Magnitzky case were reported this week in the EUObserver:

Thursday, July 5, 2018

5/7/18: Does the WTO treat the U.S. "very badly"?

Yesterday, President Trump has suggested that the WTO is treating the U.S. "very badly"

In reality, the U.S. leads WTO in terms of dispute resolutions wins and in terms of intransigence to WTO functioning and reforms. Here is a slide from my lecture on international institutions frameworks highlighting this fact:
In the previous post, I also shown that the U.S. contributes disproportionately less than the EU and China to WTO budget:

In fact, back in October 2017, President Trump claimed that: Trump, Oct. 25: "The WTO, World Trade Organization, was set up for the benefit for everybody but us. They have taken advantage of this country like you wouldn’t believe. And I say to my people, you tell them, like as an example, we lose the lawsuits, almost all of the lawsuits in the WTO — within the WTO. Because we have fewer judges than other countries. It’s set up as you can’t win. In other words, the panels are set up so that we don’t have majorities. It was set up for the benefit of taking advantage of the United States."

WTO dispute resolution rules require that none of the panelists on each 3-person panel hearing disputes cases can be from the country involved in a dispute (per Article 8: In other words, the number of experts from any particular country that are available to serve on dispute resolution panels is immaterial to the experts service in the U.S. dispute cases.

In reality, thus, the U.S. loses slightly fewer cases brought against it, than it wins cases brought against other nations by it. The high rates of U.S. losses and wins are fully comparable with those of other advanced economies and reflect, in fact, not some WTO bias against any given nation, but rather the simple fact that majority of nations, including the U.S. tend to bring to the WTO arbitration only such cases where concerns raised are well-founded and researched. Which, in effect, means that the WTO dispute resolutions system (slow as it might be) is effective at restricting the number of frivolous cases being brought to resolution, aka, a good thing.

Much of the above evidence does not just come from my own arguments alone. Here is an intelligent and pro-trade set of arguments about why the U.S. claims of unfair treatment under the WTO regime are not only wrong, but actually conceal the much less pleasant protectionist reality of the Washington's policies:

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

3/7/18: China, EU and U.S.: Arch Stanton's grave

In a recent statement on Fox News, the U.S. President has compared China and the EU in quite stark and unfavourable, to the EU, terms: ""The European Union is possibly as bad as China, just smaller. It’s terrible what they do to us,” Trump said." Contextually, the statement relates to trade, but it prompted a torrent of replies from Mr. Trump critics, pointing to various aspects of the statement as being untrue. One example:

The problem is, as commonly the case with economic statistics, there is a number to suit any point of view, and the choice of metrics matters.

  • GDP comparatives 1: in current prices terms, expressed in billions of U.S. dollars, China's GDP in 2017 was USD12.015 trillion, against the EU's USD 17.309 trillion. The EU was 'bigger' if not 'badder' than China. The U.S, was 'bigger' than both at USD 19.391 trillion.
  • GDP comparatives 2: in Purchasing Power adjusted terms (expressed as International dollars to take account of exchange rates differentials and price differences), China GDP was IUSD23.159 trillion against smaller EU GDP of IUSD 20.983 trillion and even lower U.S. GDP of IUSD19.391 trillion. Since PPP adjustment, imperfectly, accounts for the simple fact than people in China and the EU do not live in a dollar-priced world, although some of their imports do reflect dollar-priced goods and services, this is one of the salient measures for comparing three economies. And by this measure, Mr. Trump is correct: the EU is 'smaller' than China, although the U.S. is smaller than both.
  • Trade measures: EU ranks second in the world in terms of exports and imports of merchandise trade (excluding intra-EU trade), and it ranks first in the world in terms of exports and imports of services; with total extra-EU trade accounting for 16.8 percent of EU GDP. Merchandise exports amounted to USD 1.932 trillion in 2016, with merchandise imports of USD 1.889 trillion, services exports of USD917 billion against services imports of USD771.8 billion. China ranked first in the world in merchandise exports and second in the world in merchandise imports, fifth in commercial services exports and second in services imports. China's trade with the rest of the world amounted to 20 percent of its GDP, with merchandise exports and imports of USD2.098 trillion and USD1.587 trillion, respectively, and services exports and imports of USD207.3 billion and USD449.8 billion respectively. So total EU trade volumes were USD 5.51 trillion in 2016 against China's USD 4.342 trillion. 'Large' Europe, 'small' China. The U.S. total trade volumes with the rest of the world were between the two at USD4.921 trillion, making the U.S. smaller than the EU.
'Badness measures':
  • One possible measure of a nation's 'badness' in trade is the number of official disputes involving that nation as a complainant or the respondent in the WTO. Per WTO 2018 Annual Report, over 1995-2017 period, the U.S. were involved in 115 disputes as a complainant and 134 disputes as a respondent. 'Badsky' China numbers were 15 and 39 respectively - both, fractions of the U.S. Aggregating the EU member states' numbers, EU was involved in 107 and 122 disputes, respectively, although omitting states' disputes before they joined as the EU members reduces these numbers to 98 and 111. Which means the EU is 'worse' than China, but 'better' than the U.S. when it comes to following rules-based trade. The comparative, of course, is distorted by shorter duration of China membership. Adjusting for that, China figures rise to around 50 disputes filed and 160-170 disputes responded, making things even more complicated in terms of 'badness'.
  • Another possible measure is the current account surplus each country / block runs against its trading partners. IMF delivers some stats. The U.S. is the 'Goldilocks goodie' in that department, using dollar reserve currency status to run massive deficits at USD 466.25 billion in 2017 (similar to 2016 USD451.7 billion deficit, but vastly smaller than the IMF-projected CA deficit of USD614.7 billion for 2018 - all praise Mr. Trump's profligacy). China is clearly a 'baddy' in these terms, with a current account surplus of USD 164.9 billion in 2017, down on USD202.2 billion in 2016. The EU, however, is in the league of its own 'awfulness', with current account surplus of USD417.24 billion in 2017 up on surplus of USD332.5 billion in 2016. So the EU is 'badder' than the already 'bad' China in these terms.
  • Third measure of 'badness' as it relates to trade is the physical support for WTO by each country/block, which can be measured by the annual share of each in total WTO budget. Again, per WTO report cited above: the EU share of total WTO budget is 33.6 percent, against the U.S. 11.38 percent and China 9.84 percent. While China's budget contribution should be lower due to the country having s bizarre, 'non-market economy' status in WTO standing, U.S. contribution is small relative to the country's share of global GDP, while EU's share is disproportionately large. Who's the 'baddest' in these terms?
  • Fourth measure of 'badness' can be trade-weighted average tariff imposed by the country. WTO latest data on this covers 2015. The EU run 3.0% trade-wighted average tariff across all of its trade, with average agricultural tariff of 7.8% and average non-agricultural tariff of 2.6% with 100% binding coverage. China average trade-weighted tariff was 4.4% (agricultural 9.7% and non-agricultural 4 percent) with 100% binding coverage. Which makes China 'badder' than the EU. U.S. comparable figures were 2.4%, 3.8%, and 2.3% for average trade weighted tariffs, and 99 percent binding coverage. In summary, the EU is marginally 'worse' than the U.S. and vastly 'better' than China when it comes to tariffs protection.
  • In bilateral trade protection terms, 58.3 percent of non-agricultural imports from the U.S. were duty-free in the EU, against 19.6 percent of EU imports from China. China imported 56.5 percent of its imports from the U.S. duty-free, and 46.5 percent of imports from the EU were also zero-duty. U.S. imports from the EU were 64.9 percent duty-free and its imports from China were 35.5 percent duty free. When it comes to U.S. exports, the EU was a better destination, in these terms, than China. 'Better' EU than China in these terms.
We can draw many more comparatives in trying to gauge what 'worse' and 'smaller' might mean in the case of China vs EU comparatives when it comes to possible White House-targeting criteria. In reality, economics, trade, trade policies and finance are complex. Far more complex than Spaghetti Western. Yet, even 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' had serious shades of grey when it came to delineating the three villains Mexican standoff at the Arch Stanton's grave. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

30/6/18: U.S. incarceration statistics and American Exceptionalism

The U.S. figures prominently in the world of horrific stats, as do many other countries. Perhaps the most significant difference between these, however, is the fact that the U.S. claims high moral grounds when it comes to the rest of the world, despite having its own house out of order.

Here is one example: the U.S. often positions itself as the society based on two (amongst others) core ethical principles: law and order, and public support for ethical norms. Now, if the two values are taken together, the proposition would imply that the U.S. has law & norms-abiding citizenry (the average crime rate should be below that of the countries the U.S. lectures), plus a  functioning legal system (the punitive system of justice should be functioning alongside the preventative and rehabilitative functions). In conjunction, the three factors should combine to yield a relatively benign incarceration rates in the U.S. compared to other countries.

Pew Research data shows the exact opposite: While the U.S. incarceration rate has peaked and is declining, the U.S. remains a global outlier in terms of incarcerations per 100,000 people:

This presents an impossible dilemma:

  • Either (A) the U.S. justice system is highly effective in capturing and convicting criminals (large prison population being driven by law enforcement efficiency), or (B) the U.S. justice system is highly ineffective in preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals (large prison population being driven by failure of the justice system in its other key functions), or (C) the U.S. population has high rates of disdain for law and order, criminality and recidivism.
  • What is impossible is that 'Not (A)' can simultaneously coincide with 'Not (B)' and 'Not (C)'. 
In other words, what is impossible is the very claim of U.S. exceptionalism as a society with highly effective and functioning democratic law and order institutions while, simultaneously, being a law and norms-abiding society. 

Thus, any analyst rating the U.S. legal system as being highly functional must simultaneously allow for the U.S. society to be disrespectful of laws and norms. Alternatively, any analyst claiming that the U.S. society is norms and laws-based must simultaneously allow for the U.S. justice system to be of low quality. One or the other, logically, applies. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

29/6/18: Multilateralism and the Impossible Policy Trilemmas

"Global governance requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle the hardest shared problems. With multilateralism under attack, the narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions."

Can Multilateralism Adapt?, Jean Pisani-Ferry.

International Political Trilemma applies to both monetary and fiscal policy dimension by making it impossible for modern societies to combine:

  1. Monetary sovereignty in the form of free capital mobility, with international political stability and political autonomy of democratic systems. In simple terms, free capital mobility means that capital flows will reflect economic and demographic conditions prevailing in the specific society. If these conditions deteriorate, triggering capital outflows (perhaps due to monetary accommodation response to ageing population), the society can respond either through imposing capital controls (preserving its standing in international political institutions, and allowing its democratic institutions to remain robust) or it can pursue non0-democratic suppression of its own population (allowing capital to flow out of the economy and not imposing cost of resulting economic decline onto international partners). Alternatively, the country can continue allowing outflow of capital and retain democracy by blaming the external shocks and restricting its engagement with international political institutions.
  2. Fiscal sovereignty in the form of free capital mobility, international political stability and autonomous fiscal policy. In simple terms, the above monetary sovereignty simply transfers democratic autonomy failure to fiscal policy failure.

To my students at TCD and MIIS, these are familiar from the following summary charts:

For more academically inclined readers, here is my paper summarising these Trilemmas and putting them into the context of the euro area harmonisation: Gurdgiev, Constantin, Euro After the Crisis: Key Challenges and Resolution Options (May 30, 2016). Prepared for: GUE/NGL Group, European Parliament, October 2015:

It is, generally, not hard to find examples of the two trilemmas presence in a range of historical shocks in the past. More recent examples, however, are harder to come by due to time lags required to see these trilemmas in action. Pisani-Ferry's quote above hints at such.

During the 1990s, "After an eight-decade-long hiatus, the global economy was being reunified. Economic openness was the order of the day. ...The message was clear: globalization was not just about liberalizing flows of goods, services and capital but about establishing the rules and institutions required to steer markets, foster cooperation, and deliver global public goods."

As Pisano-Ferry argues, today, "Despite a decade of talks, the global trade negotiations launched in 2001 have gotten nowhere. The Internet has become fragmented and could break up further. Financial regionalism is on the rise. The global effort to combat climate change rests on a collection of non-binding agreements, from which the United States has withdrawn...  The very principles of multilateralism, a key pillar of global governance, seem to have become a relic from a distant past."

"...let’s face it: today’s problems did not start with Trump." In fact, the problems started with the above trilemmas. Or put differently, the problems are not an outrun of bad policies or choices, but the natural result of the impossibility of combining the conflicting policies objectives and institutions. "There is no shortage of explanations. An important one is that many participants in the international system are having second thoughts about globalization. A widespread perception in advanced countries is that the rents from technological innovation are being eroded precipitously... A second explanation is that the US strategy toward Russia and China has failed... neither Russia nor China has converged politically... Third, the US is unsure that a rules-based system offers the best framework to manage its rivalry with China. [and]... Finally, global rules look increasingly outdated. Whereas some of their underlying principles – starting with the simple idea that issues are addressed multilaterally rather than bilaterally – are as strong as ever, others were conceived for a world that no longer exists. Established trade negotiation practices make little sense in a world of global value chains and sophisticated services. And categorizing countries by their development level is losing its usefulness, given that some of them combine first-class global companies and pockets of economic backwardness."

In simple terms, the world became more complex and more fragile because we tried to make it less complex and more centralized (hegemonic positioning of the U.S. in Bretton Woods setting), while making it also more multilateral (through financial, economic, trade and human capital integration).

Pisano-Ferry offers a 50,000 feet level view on the solution to the problems: "the solution is neither to cultivate the nostalgia of yesterday’s order nor to place hope in loose, ineffective forms of international cooperation. International collective action requires rules... The narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions." In other words, one cannot tackle trijemmas directly (correct view), but one can defuse them by limiting each node of the desired policies. E.g. less democracy here - to offset pressure from demographic of ageing, less capital mobility there - to reduce the speed of capital flows across the borders and lower volatility of financialized investment, less fiscal sovereignty - to provide better buffers for shocks arising in financial and economic systems, and less international institutions - to allow for more flexible rebalancing of monetary, trade and fiscal policies.

The problem with this is it requires for the hegemony (the U.S.) to put a hard stop to imposing its preferred solutions onto the rest of the world and international institutions. Or, put differently, the hegemony must stop being a hegemony. Good luck squaring that with American vision of the world a-la Rome 4.0.

29/6/18: Can, Foot, Road: EU 'Agreement' on Migration Crisis

The EU27 have a new 'deal'. This time, on revamping the block's migration strategies in the face of continued relentless wave of refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria and North Africa, propelled or aided to take desperate actions by the regime change doctrine of Washington. Migration numbers are down roughly 90 percent from their peak in 2015, and fell 45 percent y/y in the first half of 2018. But, voter revolt against the system that is perceived as "open borders" is still fuelling rise in political opportunism and extremism across Europe. The latest catalysts for the negotiations have been: (1) the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Germany that now threatens the uneasy governing coalition in Berlin, and (2) the arrival to power of the new, anti-immigration coalition in Italy. To be more precise, Italian Government has been asking for the EU to take "concrete steps" to share burden of accepting refugees with Italy for some time now. Other  catalysts have been governments of Hungary and the Czech Republic, where current political leadership has been opposing the EU policy of imposing automatic quotas for accepting migrants.

Earlier today, following almost nine hours of negotiations, the EU27 finally hammered out a compromise deal, immediately labeled in the media as 'political fudge' - something the EU has been very skilled at achieving for a good part of the last 20 years.

To prevent Italy from exercising a veto on the deal, the EU agreed to redistribute arriving migrants away from the country of their original landing to "control centres" spread across the EU. Centres locations are to be specified later. "Control centres", funded out of unspecified funds, but presumably payable by the joint resources of the EU, will de facto trade 'local jobs and euros' for communities accepting large scale migrants detention centres. This model works well with military bases and jails, and can be attractive to some poorer Eastern European countries, as well as countries like Greece and Italy. The key to this is that the detention centres will only be located in countries that volunteer to accept them. In simple terms, immigration policy is now a part of fiscal redistribution scheme, just what Italy wanted.

"Control centres" will function as a triage point, with “rapid and secure processing” separating economic migrants from those with a potentially legitimate claim to the asylum. Thereafter, successfully pre-screened asylum seekers will be distributed under the principle of solidarity (quotas), although, in a bow to Czech and Hungarian governments, solidarity principle will apparently be voluntary too. In other words, "rapid" processing will likely end up being a 'lengthy detention' in "control centres", as many Governments will simply refuse to take in asylum seekers, while other Governments will end up being swamped with applicants.

To restrict the numbers of those reaching the EU borders in the first place, the EU meeting agreed to provide more funds for Turkey and Morocco to act as buffers for refugees. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia are to get funding for setting up 'processing centres'. Or, put differently, the EU will be paying more to warehouse migrants offshore, something that is likely to lead to lengthy detention in questionable conditions.

As a support for embattled Angela Merkel, the agreement also states that the nation states can “take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures” to stop refugees and migrants crossing Europe’s internal borders. Whatever this means for the Schengen agreement and borderless travel, time will tell.

My view: The migration agreement is nothing more than another kick to the proverbial can that was stuck in the cracks on the proverbial road toward addressing the migration crisis. It fails to address actual modalities of asylum process, the key being the length of the process, lack of alternatives to highly costly and questionable (in ethical and even international law terms) deportations of failed seekers, and the lack of clarity of rules and resources for allocating successful asylum seekers. It also failed in effectively dealing with migrants inflows: a 'buffer zone' on the southern shores of the Mediterranean simply increases costs of making the crossing, and thus increases the risk of crossing to migrants. It does not remove the incentives for making the journey. In the case of Libya and Egypt, there are questions about these states' capacity actually control their borders, primarily arising from the nature of the Government regimes in both countries. In case of Syria, ability to seal off inflows of refugees from the country hinges on stabilisation of the Assad regime, as no other participant in the Syrian civil war has any interest in controlling Syria's Mediterranean coast. In effect, the EU agreement does not tackle the main issue at hand: how to reduce the inflows of both economic migrants and refugees into Europe. Likewise, the EU agreement does not even touch upon the need to structure effective measures (legal and institutional) to improve integration of the successful migrants into the European societies.

In short, we will be back to this issue soon. Mark my words.