The Economist ‘Free exchange’ had a piece on productivity and how it has been rather stagnant in the rich countries. Since the 1960’s rates have dropped (except for Japan in 1970’s) and economist are suggesting that this has contributed to such low wage increases. Explanations for this problem fall into three categories:
1. Robert Gordon (Northwestern University) suggest that humanity has run out of big ideas. Inventions of the early19th and 20th centuries (electricity, indoor plumbing etc) have had a much greater impact on productivity than those of recent technological advances. However it was software and computing power that was the driver behind the productivity boom of the late 1990’s. Productivity growth has also slowed in developing countries (Mexico and Turkey) which should be able to achieve greater output per worker with using technology.
2. Some have suggested that the problem lies in the way productivity is measured as statistical agencies sometime fail to include things like the massive reduction in the cost of digital media (free in most cases) subtracts from measured GDP – smartphones greatly improve productivity but are not captured by the statisticians. But the loss of productivity is far more than the estimates of the unmeasured gains from information technology. A ball park figure (Chad Syverson – University of Chicago) has the US economy losing $2.7 trillion in lost output since 2004 which equates to about $8,400 per person.
3. A further explanation is that inflexible developed economies are not efficient at moving people out of areas where there is no work to areas of growth. Business start-ups have fallen steadily since the late 1980’s. High growth companies have not expanded to other areas and have also preferred to bank profits rather than taking the option of reinvestment. An issue could be that if it was easier and cheaper to locate in depressed areas employment would rise.
Machines or Labour in low paid jobs.
In order to boost productivity companies need more financial support for research and development and a reduction in government regulations – red tape. However low pay does allow companies to employ more people in marginal jobs as in some cases the cost of labour is less than the investment needed to introduce automation – checkouts in supermarkets for instance. But the abundance of cheap labour has led to firms to use that labour in less productive manner which leads to underemployment.
Living in a rural area you tend to get a lot of free newspapers with a agricultural bent. Skimming the pages of NZ Farmer (March 28 2016) I came across a very informative article by Keith Woodford about European farmers expanding their value-add dairy production and its impact on New Zealand.
Up to April 2015 European farmers were protected by production quotas and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which provided large production subsidies which led to over-production. At the outset of the EU, one of the main objectives was the system of intervention in agricultural markets and protection of the farming sector.
An intervention price is the price at which the CAP would be ready to come into the market and to buy the surpluses, thus preventing the price from falling below the intervention price. This is illustrated opposite. Here the European supply of lamb drives the price down to the equilibrium 0Pfm – the free market price, where supply and demand curves intersect and quantity demanded and quantity supplied equal 0Qm. However, the intervention price (0Pint) is located above the equilibrium and it has the following effects:
1. It encourages an increase in European production. Consequently, output is raised to 0Qs1.
2. At intervention price, there is a production surplus equal to the horizontal distance AB which is the excess of supply above demand at the intervention price.
3. In buying the surplus, the intervention agency incurs costs equal to the area ABCD. It will then incur the cost of storing the surplus or of destroying it.
4. There is a contraction in domestic consumption to 0Qd1
Consumers pay a higher price to the extent that the intervention price exceeds the notional free market price.
Production quotas in Europe were eliminated in April 2015 and from April to November European milk production increased by 4% with a 6% increase in December from the previous year. However, as with the reduction in subsidies in New Zealand in 1984, they will be a lot of pain for European farmers as their ‘safety net’ has now been taken away.
The Europeans are producing as much cheese, butter, infant formula and cream as they can, with cheese being more important than liquid milk. The Europeans are also selling increasing quantities of UHT and infant formula to China. With both products, they are out-marketing New Zealand.
Chinese infant formula statistics for 2015 show European countries with 78 per cent market share of imported product, compared to New Zealand at 8 per cent.
#1 – Holland – 34%
#2 – Ireland – 15%
The Europeans would like to decrease their production skim milk powder (SMP), but with butter and cream being profitable, they keep producing the SMP as a by-product. However, the European production of whole milk powder (WMP) has been drifting down in response to low prices.
The European producers have protection from some of the Global Dairy Auction process through their reliance on value-add products. Also, apart from Ireland, all European dairy systems are 12-month-a-year production systems. These 12 month production systems can lead to higher production costs, but they also lead to lower processing costs through better utilisation of processing infrastructure. This then feeds back into higher farm-gate prices.
The Europeans have been putting limited quantities of skim milk powder (SMP) into what are called intervention stocks. At the end of January 2016, there were about 50,000 tonnes of SMP in a public intervention store. The intervention quantities could reach a new limit of 218,000 tonnes over coming months. The main benefit of the SMP intervention is a smoothing of commodity prices. So if the price is too high stocks are released into the market and when they are too low authorities buy stock in order to reduce supply and therefore increase the price to a specific level.
European Farmers and the future
There is a good chance that in the longer term European milk production will further increase, as some farms become bigger and fewer in number. Poland has become one of the largest milk producers in the EU become a major milk producer with its flat terrain, very fertile soil, low feed and labour costs. Furthermore compared to other EU members it doesn’t have the pressure on land for residential use. Since joining the EU in 2004, the informal dairy sector is also still considerable in Poland, but the 2015 quota lift has seen these farms absorbed into the formal sector which in turn are expected to expand quickly without quota impediments.
For this longer term, the Europeans are not going to try and compete with New Zealand with WMP. Europeans regard WMP as an outlet for product with no other immediate use. And they know that, in low-priced volatile commodity markets for long-life products, they lack competitive advantage relative to New Zealand.
There is growing anxiety that policymakers in the developed world will need to consider some radical approaches to tackling the next downturn. Quantitative easing (the buying of government bonds using the money of the central bank) is limited and with interest rates already a record lows a further drop is unlikely to stimulate much more aggregate demand. Fiscal policy could be employed – tax cuts and increases in government spending. However the issue here is how much fiscal stimulus can government’s afford with the debt they already have? See table
Government policy in recent years has done little to improve the economic climate. Although there has been many rounds of quantitative easing the productivity of those in work has been poor leading to lethargic growth levels. This ultimately limits real wage growth and tax revenue to reduce government debt levels. Economies are now doomed to many years of weaker growth with lackluster demand which will mean more radical policies outside the square. Some policy options could be:
Fusing Monetary and Fiscal Policy
An option discussed in The Economist was to finance public spending and the tax cuts by printing more money. This could be more effective than Quantitive Easing (QE) as the money now bypasses the banking system and goes straight into the pockets of the consumers. This would hopefully encourage consumers to spend money straight away instead of going through the process of borrowing money from the bank as is the case with QE.
Incomes Policy – wage-price spiral
The aim of an incomes policy in the 1960’s and 70’s was to link the growth of incomes to the productivity so as to prevent the excessive rises in factor incomes which raise costs and hence prices. However the idea here is to generate higher incomes at all levels by using tax incentives and to encourage a wage-price spiral. This seems bizarre in the context of the 1970’s as this is what governments were trying to solve.
Capital spending on infrastructure is seen as a much more effective tool to stimulate growth than tax cuts. Unlike tax cuts, capital spending goes directly into the circular flow and it attracts complementary spending elsewhere in the economy more than any other intervention. It is estimated that a third of roads in the USA are in a poor state and over 10% of its bridges are not structurally sound. However although it might sound a good idea, infrastructure spending can be wasteful as even many years of capital spending in Japan hasn’t had the desired effect of boosting the economy.
Where to from here?
The problem, then, is not that the world has run out of policy options. Politicians have known all along that they can make a difference, but they are weak and too quarrelsome to act. America’s political establishment is riven; Japan’s politicians are too timid to confront lobbies; and the euro area seems institutionally incapable of uniting around new policies.
Source: The Economist – 20th February 2016
While milk production in New Zealand is lower this summer the global milk supply over the last year is strong with a 2.2% growth in Europe and 1.2% in the USA. This strong supply growth and the reduction in demand from China has led to downward pressure on prices.
New Zealand Federated Farmers Dairy chairman Andrew Hoggard said the disappointingly weak GDT result would put more pressure on Fonterra’s “poor” forecast payout of $4.60 a kilogram of milksolids.
“With another poor result I expect various people might try to jump on the bandwagon and try to the lay the blame somewhere, this is simply economics 101, supply is too high and demand is weak. … If we want to look at anything to blame, then the answer lies offshore with subsidised production in other countries hiding economic realities from farmers offshore who keep increasing production despite the market telling them the opposite.”
These prices are generated by the GlobalDairyTrade which is an auction platform for internationally traded commodity dairy products. How does it work?
GlobalDairyTrade trading events are conducted as ascending-price clock auctions run over several bidding rounds. In each auction a specified maximum quantity of each product is offered for sale at a pre-announced starting price. Bidders bid the quantity of each product that they wish to purchase at the announced price. If the price of a product increases between rounds, to ensure their desired quantity a bidder must bid their desired quantity at the new, higher price. Generally, as the price of a product increases, the quantity of bids received for that product decreases. The trading event runs over several rounds with the prices increasing round to round until the quantity of bids received for each product on offer matches the quantity on offer for the product (as shown in the diagram below). Each trading event typically lasts approximately 2 hours.
Bidders cannot join a trading event part way through: they must participate in round 1 and can only maintain or decrease their total bid quantities from that point. Products can be purchased over different delivery time periods, known as contract periods.
Click below for more information.
China’s outlook in 2016 looks to be more complicated than ever. Consider the following:
1. The data out of China is difficult to measure and the economy remains soft like 2015
2. The Chinese authorities are unlikely to support any further credit stimulus as the corporate sector is already one of the highest leveraged in the world – see graph. However they have allowed the Yuan to devalue (1.5% this year so far) in order to help the export market
3. China’s foreign reserves have decreased significantly as locals and foreign investors take money out of China – the Yuan would have fallen further is it wasn’t for foreign exchange intervention.
4. Investors are wanting to exit the stockmarket – 12% down in 2016. This figure would have been higher if authorities didn’t curb the trading and buying of stocks. Although the stockmarket is down 40% from its mid 2015 high it is basically unchanged from a year ago.
The Chinese economy needs more stimulus and that the currency and stockmarket should fall further – a lower currency would also support growth. On a positive side low Government debt and vast foreign exchange reserves are the ammunition to tackle the downside economic risks.
Source: NAB – Australian Markets Weekly – 11th January 2016
A lot of attention has been paid to the drop in oil prices to $28 per barrel as of today which is indicative of the increase in supply from US shale producers and the fall in global demand especially from China. However there is another indicator that shows the global economy is in pause mode and that is the Baltic Dry Index which measures the cost of shipping raw materials – iron ore, coal, metal etc.
In mid January this year the index fell below 400 (see graph) for the first time since records began in1985. In June 2015 the index was comfortably above the 1000 mark and in 2010 approximately 4000, therefore transport costs are at a very low level.
Why are shipping costs at such low levels?
It comes down to simple supply and demand. On the supply side shipping companies have increased their dry bulk capacity as the cost of borrowing money is at very low levels. On the demand side it was assumed that global trade would keep expanding but according to a World Bank report global trade has slowed down sharply in recent years to around 3% and it predicted to slow further.
Cost for ship owners
Owners of the largest container ships (known as capsize vessels) reckon it costs $8,000 per day for running costs. However in today’s market, users of these ships only pay around $5,000 in fees which makes it uneconomical for ship owners to offer their service. With this is mind shipping bankruptcies are bound to feature this year and unless China produces a new growth spurt the Baltic Dry Index will keep heading south.
Baltic Dry Index – Jan 2009- Jan 2016
Obesity it turns out is actually good for the economy. More consumption of food, particularly processed food, contributes to more economic growth. Poor health, strangely enough, can be considered an economic bonus. Bad food, too much food and drink, might be tragic in health terms but when it comes to the economy it would seem that obesity pays. But obesity doesn’t pay when it comes to the natural capital of the planet. Some economists have seen this obesity issue as indicative of wider economic, environmental and social problems. They take the economic argument one step further and link obesity to greenhouse gas emissions. Unnecessary over consumption of food is putting pressure on the environment through farming and manufacturing processes and hence contributing to its degradation.
There is proof to support the belief that while economic development is for the most part undoubtedly associated with human health, this is not always the case. The measure of economic growth – GDP – the value of the output of goods and services, does not consider the negative contributions that it might make to an economy. Ten percent of the developed world is made up of drug alcohol and cigarette sales and dealing with all these, medically of course, adds to the GDP and it is ironic that some cigarette manufacturers also produce surgical equipment and therefore making and doubling the benefit for GDP from smoking.
However growth is related to people living longer and this has been apparent with the improvements in healthcare in developed countries over the last century. In the developing world there has been a change from a high presence of infectious diseases to that of persistent illnesses including heart disease, strokes etc and is reflected, in some cases, in a disability for life. According to Garry Egger and Boyd Swinborne obesity is not a disease but a signal. It’s the canary in the coalmine, which should alert us to bigger structural problems in society. There are a number of areas where humans have achieved a peak of success, a sweet spot, but now that very success is turning on us and threatening to unravel centuries of achievement.
On the one hand, economic growth has over centuries led to a steadily improving standard of living, better levels of health and ever increasing life spans. In economic terms this reflects the start of a point of diminishing marginal rates of return from continued investment in the growth model.
Diminishing rates of return for the growth model
Mortality and economic growth data collected on the Swedish economy between 1800 to 2000 has shown the commencement of a diminishing rate of return on economic growth in relation to mortality rates. This coincides, not unexpectedly, with the leveling of improvements in health made from the decrease in infectious diseases associated with development, but with the consequent increase in chronic diseases associated with modern lifestyles, driven as they are by the modern environment. It is this switch, from predominantly infectious disease, to lifestyle-related chronic disease, and the consequent breakdown in the human immune system that differentiates the early from late stages of economic development. Several developing countries, such as China and India, appear to be experiencing this issue of chronic disease and at a more rapid pace because of their levels of GDP. In China for instance more than a quarter of the adult population are overweight or obese, as people add more meat and dairy products to their diet, causing chronic disease. According to a study in the Journal of Health Affairs “we need to find the right investments and regulations to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, or we risk facing higher rates of death, disease, and disability and the related costs.”
The reverse applies to Cuba where they experienced improved health conditions with the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. Over the next decade there was a significant improvement in health:
• Decrease in food intake of 1000 kcal/day average
• Mortality rate decrease by 20%
• Obesity reduced by approximately 50%
• Deaths from heart disease reduced by 35%
• Deaths from stroke reduced by 18%
It seems to be apparent that the current economic growth system cannot keep going in perpetuity. As developed economies grow there comes a point where there is a diminishing marginal rate of return on investment in terms of climate change and in particular human health. As Keynes indicated at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 this current model of economics, ie. growth driven, will need to change in the next 100 years.
Obesity, Chronic Disease, and Economic Growth: A Case for “Big Picture” Prevention by Garry Egger http://www.sage-hindawi.com/journals/apm/2011/149158/
Radio New Zealand – 30-1-11 Interview with Garry Egger