Tag Archives: Italy

Manufacturing employment and the prime-age male LFP rate: What’s the relationship?

Recently I wrote about the decline in the U.S. prime-age male labor force participation (LFP) rate and discussed some of the factors that may have caused it. One of the demand-side factors that many people think played a role is the decline in manufacturing employment in the United States.

Manufacturing has typically been a male-dominated industry, especially for males with less formal education, but increases in automation and productivity have resulted in fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States over time. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, the story goes, so did a lot of economic opportunities for working-age men. The result has been men leaving the labor force.

However, the same decline in manufacturing employment occurred in other countries as well, yet many of them experienced much smaller declines in their prime-age male LFP rates. The table below shows the percent of employment in manufacturing in 1990 and 2012 for 10 OECD countries, as well as their 25 to 54 male LFP rates in 1990 and 2012. The manufacturing data come from the FRED website and the LFP data are from the OECD data site. The ten countries included here were chosen based on data availability and I think they provide a sample that can be reasonably compared to the United States.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf table

As shown in the table, all of the countries experienced a decline in manufacturing employment and labor force participation over this time period. Thus America was not unique in this regard.

But when changes in both variables are plotted on the same graph, the story that the decline in manufacturing employment caused the drop in male LFP rate doesn’t really hold up.

country 25-54 LFP rate, manuf scatter plot

The percentage point change in manufacturing employment is across the top on the x-axis and the percentage point change in the prime-age male LFP rate is on the y-axis. As shown in the graph the relationship between the two is negative in this sample, and the change in manufacturing employment explains almost 36% of the variation in LFP rate declines (the coefficient on the decline in manufacturing employment is -0.322 and the p-value is 0.08).

In other words, the countries that experienced the biggest drops in manufacturing employment experienced the smallest drops in their LFP rate, which is the opposite of what we would expect if the decline in manufacturing employment played a big role in the decline of the LFP rate across countries.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation and I find it hard to believe that declines in manufacturing employment actually improved LFP rates, all else equal. But I also think the less manufacturing, less labor force participation story is too simple, and this data supports that view.

America and Italy experienced similar declines in their male LFP rates but neither experienced the largest declines in manufacturing employment over this time period. What else is going on in America that caused its LFP decline to more closely resemble Italy’s than that of Canada, Australia and the UK, which are more similar to America along many dimensions?

Whatever the exact reasons are, it appears that American working-age males responded differently to the decline in manufacturing employment over the last 20 + years than similar males in similar countries. This could be due to our higher incarceration rate, the way our social safety net is constructed, differences between education systems, the strength of the economy overall or a number of other factors. But attributing the bulk of the blame to the decline of manufacturing employment doesn’t seem appropriate.

What is the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity?

FLORENCE— Bernardo Caprotti was a 45-year-old entrepreneur when he agreed to buy a suburban plot of land for a new supermarket.

Building permits recently came through. He’s now 88.

So begins an enlightening story in today’s Wall Street Journal on Italy’s sclerotic economy. The story continues:

Italy has emerged as a Technicolor example of the [EU’s] problems. Its growth has been stuttering for 20 years. Since 2008, its economy has shrunk by 9%, and this year it is struggling to expand by even 1%.

It is tempting to think that a simple solution is new leadership, that Italy just needs to elect more market-oriented politicians to sweep away the layers of red-tape and barriers to entrepreneurship that have ensnared the country’s entrepreneurs.

But the problem is much more intractable because established businesses benefit from the status quo:

The roots of the problem, say many Italians, lie in how vested interests in the private and public sectors gum up the economy, preventing change that replaces old practices with new, more efficient ones, and repeatedly frustrating political attempts to shake up the country.

It adds up to “deep-seated cultural obstacles to growth,” says Tito Boeri, a professor at Milan’s Bocconi University who is one of Italy’s top economists.

Years ago, Milton Friedman put his finger on the problem:

A few months ago, I attended a conference on the intersection between politics and capitalism (what we’ve called government-granted privilege). The eminent economic historian Robert Higgs was there and he said something that has stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing, but he just approved the quote):

I believe crony capitalism—the alliance between business and government—is the biggest problem of our age. And the reason is that it is robust. As alternatives to free-market capitalism, communism and old-fashioned fascism are thankfully dead. And genuine socialism has no real constituency in America. But crony capitalism, unfortunately, has a very active, organized, well-funded, and vocal constituency. It is the greatest threat to our prosperity and our freedom.

 

A government that hands out privileges can expect corruption

According to the Washington Post, the mafia is heavily involved in Italy’s renewable energy market. This is not particularly surprising given that firms in that market compete on a manifestly uneven playing field.

The Godfather Movie in TextIn a market characterized by a genuinely level playing field—one in which no firm or industry benefits from government-granted privilege—the only way to profit is to offer something of value to customers. If you fail to create value for voluntarily paying customers, they won’t volunteer their money. It’s that simple.

But things are different when the playing field can be tilted through government-granted privileges. This is because when the playing field can be tilted, firms have an incentive to find some way to persuade the government to tilt it their way. And the most persuasive techniques aren’t always above board.

The problem is that objective standards for playing favorites are hard to come by. This can corrupt even well-intentioned programs that privilege particular behavior in the name of serving the general good.

Imagine you are a politician and you want to reward firms that specialize in renewable energy. How do you determine who makes the cut? What if you want to reward companies that securitize mortgages for low-income households. How do you decide whom to reward? Or say you want to bailout “systemically important” banks. Where do you draw the line between systemically important and systemically unimportant?

Without objective guideposts, subjective factors loom large: whom do you interact with the most? Whom have you known the longest? Which firms share your ideological perspective? Which are headquartered in your hometown?

Even the most well-intentioned of politicians are susceptible to these considerations because all humans are susceptible to these considerations. That’s why a slew of research has found government-granted privileges are often associated with corruption. For example, in an examination of 450 firms in 35 countries, economists Mara Faccio, Ronald Masulis, and John McConnell found that politically connected firms are more likely to be bailed out than non-connected firms. It’s possible that more deserving firms just happen to be politically connected, but this strains credulity. A more plausible explanation is that in the absence of an objective standard for dispensing privileges, politicians reward those they know.

And when that is the case, firms make it their business to get to know politicians. Just ask Angelo Mozilo, the politically ensconced former head of Countrywide Financial. Countrywide supplied the loans that were repackaged by the federally backed Fannie Mae. And since Countrywide’s business model depended on the favor of politicians, Mozilo made sure he was in good standing with his benefactors. Under a program known internally as the “Friends of Angelo” program, Countrywide offered favorable mortgage financing to the likes of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

The conventional route to profit is to please one’s customers. But when firms are able to profit by pleasing politicians, they will do whatever it takes to please politicians. Which brings us back to Italy and renewables. The current investigation (known as operation Eolo after the Greek god of wind) first bore fruit in 2010 when eight people were arrested for bribing officials with cash and luxury cars. Armed with more evidence, officials have now arrested another dozen crime bosses.

It is good, of course, to have police who investigate these matters. But a far simpler, equitable, and efficient solution is to create a truly level playing field for business. When politicians cannot tilt the playing field in favor of particular firms or industries, businesses have nothing to gain from bribery and connections.

Put away the honey jar and you won’t have an ant problem.

Behold the Savage Austerity

If you are a journalist or a commentator and you have ever uttered or written the word “austerity,” I hope you spend some time with this chart:

Vero offers some excellent comments here:

These countries still spend more than pre-recession levels

France and the U.K. did not cut spending.

In Greece, and Spain, when spending was actually reduced — between 2009–2011 — the cuts have been relatively small compared to the size of bloated European budgets. Also, meaningful structural reforms were seldom implemented.

As for Italy, the country reduced spending between 2009 and 2010 but the data shows [an] uptick in spending 2011. The increase in spending represents more than the previous reduction.

Is There Room for Compromise on Unemployment Insurance?

Last night the Senate allowed unemployment insurance benefits to lapse for those Americans who have been receiving such benefits for 99 weeks or more. What will happen to the unemployment rate? Let’s look at it in the short-run and in the long-run.

Short Run:  

I would argue that in the short-run, it is unclear. On the one hand, Keynesians believe that unemployment insurance is one of the more effective forms of fiscal stimulus: by putting money in the hands of those who are likely to spend it, the Keynesian multiplier can work its magic, rippling throughout the economy leaving prosperity in its wake. That is, unless the estimates of the Keynesian multiplier are widely off-target. And there are some reasons to believe they are.

But even if we grant the Keynesians this argument, we have to consider the countervailing evidence. There are numerous studies that show that extensions in potential benefit duration are correlated with longer unemployment spells. Moreover, other studies show that the probability of finding employment rises just prior to the lapse of benefits.

Of course, aside from the macroeconomic effects, we have to consider the fact that unemployment checks help people. And maybe we should be willing to harm the economy at-large for the sake of helping those who are out of work.

Long Run:

The long run story is clearer. From 2000 to 2004, the U.S. unemployment rate averaged about half that of France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

 

In 2004, among the unemployed, the U.S. fraction that was unemployed for more than a year was about one-fourth that of other nations.

 

So compared with other nations, we have an extremely healthy labor market and we all benefit from this. As I have noted before, numerous studies attribute our relatively low long-term unemployment rate to our more competitive labor market. Compared with other nations, U.S. labor taxes are lower, labor regulations are less-burdensome, and unemployment insurance benefits are less-generous. Because of this, employers are more likely to hire and employees are more likely to accept offers. This is an incredible advantage. And we should not take it for granted.

Reconciling the Short with the Long Run:

So in the short run, unemployment insurance may help the economy while it undoubtedly helps those who find themselves unemployed. But how do we achieve this short-term aim without jeopardizing the competitive labor markets that have benefitted all Americans?

Perhaps there is room for compromise. One option may be to agree to extend benefits now in exchange for reform of the system. As Eileen has noted, we would do well to consider systems such as that of Chile. They have two systems that work side-by-side: one is a social insurance system that is similar to our own unemployment insurance program; the other is an Unemployment Insurance Savings Account (UISA) program in which workers are required to save a fraction of their earnings in a personal account. Workers have an incentive to get back to work quickly because whatever amount they leave in the account becomes theirs when they retire. Former Clinton Administration economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has made a similar proposal for the U.S. that would integrate unemployment insurance with retirement insurance. Maybe now is the time to give it a thought?

Fiscal Risk: Jefferson County, Alabama and Recanati, Italy

Municipal debts are rising on both sides of the Atlantic and for similar reasons. The Washington Post reports that the same risky credit swap deals that led Jefferson County, Alabama into default are riddled in the finances of an estimated 519 municipalities in Italy. These towns face $1.3 billion in losses from poorly-constructed interest rate swaps.

Recanati, Italy agreed to take out contracts on $106 million in municipal debt agreeing to pay the bank a fixed 5 percent interest rate. The banks agreed to pay an adjustable rate (tied to an interest rate index) in return.

European interest rates were high in the mid-2000’s. Recanati realized $400,00 between 2001 and 2008 in interest rate payments. Then rates dropped. The city had to pay the bank 5 percent, while getting less than 1 percent in return.  In one year, Recanati wiped out all of its previous gains. This year the town will lose $700,000.

While Recanati officials  blame the banks for “taking advantage” of them. Another point is worth making. Governments are not private firms. The financial risks borne by governments present a fiscal risk to taxpayers. It is as true of badly-designed interest rate swap deals as it is of how some governments have invested workers’ pensions.

Is California’s Debt a Greek Tragedy?

James Surowiekci writing at The New Yorker considers whether there is good reason to think California’s fiscal plight puts it on course for a Greek-style collapse. Greece is not the only EU nation in trouble. Add in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain to the massive debt club (a.k.a the PIIGS), with debt levels at 60% of GDP in 2008-2009. By contrast the most fiscally troubled states of California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois had debt-to-GDP ratios of 15% during the same period.

Surowiecki suggests this may be reason to breathe a little easier. The biggest debtor nations in the EU owe three times as much relative to GDP as do their high-debt counterparts in the US. Plus, the states can count on a federal bailout.

Yet, neither of these thoughts are entirely comforting.

First, states have underestimated their pension obligations by threefold. Official reports estimate New Jersey’s unfunded pension obligations at $45 billion. Using more reasonable discount rates to estimate New Jersey’s pension obligation reveals an unfunded liability of $137.9 billion, or 261% of total state debt. That’s before adding in Other Post-Retirement Benefits (OPEB) and health care for public sector workers.

Secondly, a half century of  intergovernmental infusions from D.C. in the form of transfers,Medicaid, and stabilization money hasn’t kept the states afloat. Quite the contrary the erosion of fiscal federalism has meant a loss of states’ control over spending and policy.

The FY 2009 stimulus has been as effective as a shot of morphine. States have now spent their education money to expand spending and avoid cuts. Fast forward to FY 2010. Revenues haven’t recovered. Pension obligations loom larger and those “saved and created” jobs are now in search of funds.

Factor in the growth in Social Security, Medicare, health care spending, and annual deficits projected to average $1 trillion over the next  decade and America 2030 looks alot worse than Greece 2010.