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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Japanisation Of Europe

By now it should be clear that the monetary experiment currently being carried out in Japan (known as “Abenomics”) is fundamentally different from the kind of quantitative easing which was implemented  in the United States and the United Kingdom during the global financial crisis. In the US and the UK QE was implemented in order to stabilize the financial system, while in Japan, and now the Euro Area (EA) the objective is to end deflationary pressures and reflate economies which are arguably caught in some form of liquidity trap.

In particular it is hard not to draw the conclusion that something structural and more long-term is taking place in Japan, and that that something is only tangentially related to the recent global financial crisis. One plausible explanation is that Japan’s long-lasting malaise is not simply a debt deflationary hangover from the bursting of a property bubble in 1992 but rather with the rapid population ageing the country has experienced. If this is the case then the ongoing economic stagnation in Europe may have a lot more to do with the Japan experience than it does with  the recent economic dynamics seen in the UK and the US. The reason for this is simple:  Europe’s population is the second oldest on the planet after Japan’s. Certainly at first sight the similarity is striking, especially when it comes to working age population dynamics.


So is the Euro Area the New "Japan"?

"Europe is becoming Japanese" is an expression that is being used more and more. People saying this normally point to the fact that German 10 year bund yields recently went under 1% (and hence have started to look like 10 year Japan Government Bonds).


But behind this argument lies some kind of "reverse causality". In Japan JGB yields have been driven to very low levels by central bank intervention, with the BoJ now buying a very large share of all new issue bonds. In Europe, on the other hand, the ECB isn't buying Euro Area sovereigns, the markets are in anticipation of QE. So to talk about the Japanisation of Euro Area yields is a little misleading. Bond purchasers and their models are provoking this downward lurch, not the central bank response to weak growth or creeping deflation. To really push Mario Draghi into Japan-style QE in the short term markets would need to move back into risk-off mode on periphery assets, yet there is little appetite to go for what might potentially become another "widowmaker" trade by taking on a powerful central bank. Yet as long as the bond markets remain relatively well behaved Draghi will try to do as little as possible.

Another argument used to justify the "Japanisation" of the Euro Area idea carries much more clout, and that is the one being used by Paul Krugman based on working age population dynamics. "If you’re worried that secular stagnation might be depressing the natural real rate of interest (the rate consistent with full employment)”, he told blog readers “and you think that demography is a big factor, Europe looks really terrible, indeed full-on Japanese."

Inflation dynamics in Europe also look strikingly similar to those seen in Japan (but with a 20 year lag, see chart below).




The basic idea is that working age population dynamics play a big part in determining movements in aggregate demand and hence inflation. This idea received support from a research paper published at the start of August by a group of IMF economists - "Is Japan’s Population Aging Deflationary?" The first part of the paper abstract runs as follows:
"Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world. This affects growth and fiscal sustainability, but the potential impact on inflation has been studied less. We use the IMF’s Global Integrated Fiscal and Monetary Model (GIMF) and find substantial deflationary pressures from aging, mainly from declining growth and falling land prices. Dissaving by the elderly makes matters worse as it leads to real exchange rate appreciation from the repatriation of foreign assets. The deflationary effects from aging are magnified by the large fiscal consolidation need."
Strikingly Japan entered deflation not in 1992, but in 1997/8 at exactly the point the working age population peaked and in the EA it is happening in 2012/13 - just when EA working age population dynamics turned negative. The correlation may be just an odd coincidence, but it is striking.

Not according to the ECB

Naturally Mario Draghi will have none of this. "I think that the situation in the euro area is quite different from what it was in Japan in the 1990s and early 2000s", he told an ECB press conference in December 2013. He then went on to offer five reasons.

Reason No 1: "we have taken decisive monetary policy measures of great significance at a very early stage, even when, as a matter of fact, inflation was not at the levels at which it is today. It was way higher and way closer to 2% and this did not happen in Japan".

This is the case, but the vast majority of the ECB's non conventional policy measures were intended to avoid financial instability, not to  provoke inflation. The measures were largely liquidity oriented not outright "money printing" ones, so they were mainly addressing the monetary policy transmission mechanism - which was broken - not the fact that the refinancing rate was stuck up against the zero bound. There still hasn't been sufficient analysis of why outright deflation didn't hit the Euro Area sooner, but a big part of the story is probably associated with the presence of excessive rigidity in wages and prices and the constant consumption tax and administrative charge increases put in place as part of the deficit containment exercises.

It is noteworthy that in Greece, for example, wage costs came down sharply a long time before the CPI began to fall.



Reason No 2: "We are in the process of doing the asset quality review.......the situation in Japan lasted much longer than it should have because the balance sheets of the banking system and the private sector were burdened, and had to be deleveraged and the action to induce this deleveraging lacked for many years."

Well, maybe, just maybe, the ECB President has his timing a little bit out here. Japan's bubble burst in 1992, and the banks started getting seriously recapitalized in 1998. The global financial crisis hit the Euro Area in 2008, and the AQR - which is supposed to be the prerequisite for realistic recapitalization - is taking place in 2014. The time difference in fact seems to match. So we could also say the necessary action on the part of the ECB also "lacked for many years".  Of course, banks in some of the most troubled countries have already been recapitalized once, most notably in Ireland and then in Spain in 2012. But still problems remain, which is why the AQR is taking place. Earlier stress tests have just not been realistic or rigorous enough.

In a process not too dissimilar to the one taking place at the present time in the EA Japanese banks were recapitalized to the tune of 0.4% of GDP in March 2009, and by another 1.5% of GDP in March 1999. The order of magnitude of these recapitalization is not in any meaningful sense larger than that which is taking place in the Euro Area. Following an AQR type process conducted by the recently formed Japanese Financial Reconstruction Commission non performing loans were systematically identified and banks required to recapitalize accordingly. 14.8% of GDP's worth of NPLs were finally identified, a figure not notably different from the current Euro Area one, and well below the levels prevailing in the worst affected countries like Spain and Italy.



Reason No 3: "the situation of the private sector balance sheets is not at all comparable in the euro area. It is not at all comparable with what it was in Japan at that time."

I just think Draghi is wrong about this. The level of credit exposure of Japanese banks to the private sector was not *that* different from the EA one in 2008 (see chart below) and as we have seen the level of distressed lending was pretty comparable.


In effect this whole comparison with Japan in the late 1990s is a bit flawed, since as will be recalled Abenomics was only introduced in April 2013. The point being that Japan was still stuck in deflation up to that point (and may still be so when the effects of the devaluation and the tax hike wear off), and so it is a bit hard to pin all this on a couple of bad decisions in 1997 and 1998. Underlying structural factors are at work (liquidity trap, possibly driven by ultra low fertility) and these may be similar in both the European and the Japanese cases.

It is true that the bank of Japan underestimated the scale of the problem between 1992 and 1997, but the same sort of accusation can be brought to the door of the ECB. In both Japan and the EA measures were (and are being) implemented to help banks avoid liquidity crunches in the hope that this will encourage lending, but in neither case has (or is) this had/having any evident success. The poor initial demand for TLTROs being just one example of this problem.


 Reason No 4: "countries in the euro area have made significant progress in addressing their structural weaknesses....that’s the fourth difference between Japan in the 1990s and 2000s and us today."

Well, as Draghi himself admitted, the structural reform process in Europe is far from complete (France, Italy) and I think he also underestimates the kinds of reforms which were carried out in Japan at the time. The "lifelong employment" tradition, for example, was ended in the late 1990s.


Reason No 5:  "if you look at the inflation expectations in the euro area and the corresponding inflation rates you would see that in Japan the inflation expectations were dis-anchored quite significantly, and for a long period of time, which is not something we are seeing here."

This isn't exactly as straight forward as Draghi makes out either. He himself has accepted in his Jackson Hole speech that EA inflation expectations are not as well anchored as he thought they were, while on the other hand inflation expectations were better anchored in Japan than he seems willing to acknowledge (see chart below showing how 10yr inflation expectations evolved in Japan). That is to say in neither case did the central bank see the problem coming. (Click on image for better viewing)


Bottom line, despite all the denials from Mario Draghi that the Eurozone is not another Japan there are plenty of grounds for thinking that it is steadily becoming one.

 Postscript

The above arguments are developed in detail and at far greater length in my new book "Is The Euro Crisis Really 0ver? - will doing whatever it takes be enough" - on sale in various formats - including Kindle - at Amazon.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What Is The Risk The Euro Crisis Will Reignite?

The euro zone crisis is not back -- at least not yet.

Recent movements in global markets following concerns about Portugal’s Banco Espirito Santo really had as much to do with market nerves after a long spell of repressed volatility as it did with the state of the bank’s balance sheet. Despite the current calm, everyone knows that volatility will return one day, and no one wants to be caught on the back foot when it does arrive. So the initial response is to hit the “sell” button and then ask questions.

Beyond this context, there is a lack of certainty in the market about which way bond yields for the so-called “peripheral” euro zone countries are heading in the near term -- and what exactly the risks associated with holding them really are. Riding the yield compression, in the case of the Portuguese 10-year bond from over 7 percent to under 3.5 percent was a one-way-bet no-brainer once the impact of Draghi’s July 2012 speech became crystal clear.

But now yields have started to tick up again, so the advantages of holding in anticipation of further declines become less obvious, while the risks continue to mount. In many ways, the situation is analogous to yen depreciation and the Bank of Japan. The first leg was easy, as the yen fell into the 100 to 105 to USD range. But now it is stuck there, and the debate has become a “will she, won’t she” on further BoJ easing.

It is clear the recent European Central Bank decision to launch Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations has disappointed. TLTRO's may do something to help ease access to credit in the south in the mid-term, but they will hardly be effective in combating deflation. In particular, we may need to wait more than six months to see any net liquidity impact, since the September and December allocations coincide with earlier LTRO repayments, leaving what Pantheon Macroeconimcs’ Claus Vistesen calls “a potentially worrying ‘air-pocket’ over the next six months where the central bank’s balance sheet continues to contract, making the verbal commitment to easing increasingly difficult to rely on as a sole back-stop."

Will we really have to wait till 2015 to see any significant step to try to stop the deflation rot?

Digging deeper, and beyond fears about what the coming ECB bank stress tests may turn up, the simple passage of time in itself could complicate things. The recent round of  numbers has had everyone busily revising down their 2014 growth forecasts, and it is obvious that even if outright deflation is avoided inflation will be very, very low. In fact whether or not the Euro Area slumps back into outright recession or not seems to depend more on Vladimir Putin than on the ECB at the moment,

But the key point to take away from all this is that nominal GDP over the next couple of years may barely increase, with the knock on consequence that sovereign debt levels in the most indebted countries will surely be jolted onwards and upwards. This is important since all official sector projections have these levels peaking either this year or next, but now these estimates will surely need to be revisited.

Second quarter GDP data was horribly bad. France's economy stagnated, but more worryingly for policymakers Germany relapsed (minus 0.2 q-o-q), leaving Spain as the only one of the "big four" to put in a positive growth performance (0.6 q-o-q). While the immediate drag on short-term growth may well be the impact on sentiment of a crisis on the frontier between Ukraine and Russia,  the Euro Area  is now clearly stuck in some form of longer term secular stagnation. The daylight just around the next recovery corner argument rings hollower and hollower with each successive loss of momentum.

"Europe is becoming Japanese" is an expression you hear more and more. People saying this normally point to the fact that German 10 year bund yields have now gone under 1% (and hence have started to look like 10 year JGBs).


But behind this argument lies some sort of version of "reverse causality". In Japan JGB yields have been driven to very low levels by central bank intervention, with the BoJ now buying a very large share of all new issue. The ECB isn't buying Euro Area sovereigns, the markets are in anticipation of QE.  So to talk about the Japanification of Euroa Area yields is a little misleading. Bond purchasers and their models are PROVOKING this downward lurch, not weak growth or deflation. To push Mario Draghi into QE markets would need to move back into risk-off mode on periphery assets. As long as the bond markets remain well behaved Draghi will do as little as possible, as I will discuss below.

Another argument used to justify the "Japanisation" of the Euro Area idea carries much more clout, and that is the one being used by Paul Krugman based on working age population dynamics.


"If you’re worried that secular stagnation might be depressing the natural real rate of interest — the rate consistent with full employment — and you think that demography is a big factor, Europe looks really terrible, indeed full-on Japanese."
The basic idea is that working age population dynamics play a big part in determining movements in aggregate demand and hence inflation (see my secular stagnation summary here). This idea received support from a research paper published at the start of August by a group of IMF economists - "Is Japan’s Population Aging Deflationary?" (authors Derek Anderson, Dennis Botman and Ben Hunt). The first part of the abstract runs as follows:
"Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world. This affects growth and fiscal sustainability, but the potential impact on inflation has been studied less. We use the IMF’s Global Integrated Fiscal and Monetary Model (GIMF) and find substantial deflationary pressures from aging, mainly from declining growth and falling land prices. Dissaving by the elderly makes matters worse as it leads to real exchange rate appreciation from the repatriation of foreign assets. The deflationary effects from aging are magnified by the large fiscal consolidation need."
Bottom line, despite all the denials from Mario Draghi that the Eurozone is not another Japan there are plenty of grounds for thinking that it will be.

So Which Way For The ECB?

Evidently members of the EU Commission, ECB governing council members, and senior political leaders in Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris are neither theoreticians nor intellectuals. The secular stagnation hypothesis is at this point more akin to a theoretical research strategy than a workable template for policy-making, and policymakers are understandably reluctant to take decisions on the basis of what is still largely a hypothesis. As the editors of a recent book on the topic put it in their introduction: "Secular stagnation proved illusory after the Great Depression. It may well prove to be so after the Great Recession – it is still too early to tell. Uncertainty, however, is no excuse for inactivity. Most actions are no-regret policies anyway". As they suggest the risks here are far from evenly balanced. If countries like Japan, Italy and Portugal are suffering from some local variant of one common pathology, then normal solutions are unlikely to work, and matters can deteriorate fast.

Naturally the ECB can go down the Abenomics path, and institute large scale sovereign bond purchases even while the Commission turns an increasingly blind eye to higher deficit spending at the country level. But it is far from clear that Abenomics works (see here) and if it doesn't what happens to all the accumulated debt?



On the other hand time always has a cost. Letting things drift further means letting debt levels rise, and risking testing market patience and this becomes especially important in the cases of Italy and Portugal. The longer time passes the more difficult it is going to be for anyone to convince themselves that the debt of these countries is sustainable.

So there may come a point after which the Germans simply will not allow Draghi to buy Italian bonds without a prior haircut (see my "Italian Runaway Train" here). OK, they've said they won't do more PSI, but they've said a lot of things, and the cost of irritating investors is limited when you have a regional current account surplus and a central bank buying bonds.

Maybe the costs of the Euro "widowmaker" trade will be borne by all those eager bond purchasers who thought nothing could possibly go wrong. I am sure German politicians would decide a loss of credibility on PSI would be less costly to them than getting German taxpayers on the hook for current Italian debt levels. Especially in a country where they are now proudly announcing they have reduced government debt for the first time in more than 50 years. So in this case, maybe the turkeys just did vote for Xmas.

The thing is, despite the meeting between Draghi and Renzi (who may also be a turkey by Xmas) nothing substantial is going to happen in Italy. The government is under no pressure to ask for help (and doesn't even feel it needs it), and Draghi won't act before things change. Gridlock - with rising debt.

Naturally in the short term the “Mario Draghi ultimately has my back” feeling will still prevail, but with markets continuing to finance debt levels that any official study will soon have to recognize as unsustainable lack of proactive policies from the ECB will only fuel concerns that the size of the pill may become just too big for the bank to persuade Germany comfortably swallow, leaving the specter of private sector involvement to once more rear its ugly head. How do you tell people who have just sacrificed hard to get their debt under control that they are now about to help "pardon" 50% of someone else's. It simply doesn't make sense.

*************************************************************

These arguments are developed at greater length in my new book "Is The Euro Crisis Really 0ver? - will doing whatever it takes be enough" - on sale in various formats - including Kindle - at Amazon.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Does Portugal Have Its Own “Shortage Of Japanese" Problem?

In a number of posts recently I have highlighted the impact of declining workforces on economic growth (here, for example, or here, or here) and the way the policies persued to address the Euro debt crisis are having the impact of  accelerating the movement of young people away from the periphery and towards the core (here, or here) thus accelerating the decline in their working populations and exacerbating their growth problem. This issue has been already highlighted strongly in Japan's ongoing crisis, and has to some extent come to be known as the "shortage of Japanese" problem following Paul Krugman's memorable use of this expression to explain  why Japan's economic performance seemed so poor to so many.

Recently I came across a post by Portuguese blogger Valter Martins, where he looks in some depth at what is happening in Portugal. Really, despite the use of some technical details his argument is extraordinarily straightforward, in fact it is as elegant as it is simple. What he points out is that population growth rates serve as some kind of "quick and dirty" proxy for GDP growth rates, and growth in working age population serves equally well as a quick proxy for growth in GDP per capita. Any simple growth accounting process breaks growth down into a labour input component and a productivity component, so if your labour component turns negative, even to get the same growth your productivity component has to be greater. For societies that have considerable difficulty raising productivity in the first place this process of working population decline is going to make an already Herculean task even more difficult.

In addition Valter picks up a point few researchers seem to have noticed up to now, that working age population in Portugal just surprisingly peaked. Natural population dynamics have long been stationary in Portugal, and emigration has long-standing and deep roots. During the first eight years of this century the population loss caused by emigration (nearly all young educated Portuguese) was masked by the steady influx of immigrants looking for work. But now the country is in deep recession the immigrants aren't coming. Indeed  some are even leaving, while the rate of emigration by Portuguese nationals has accelerated and continues to accelerate, sending working age population (and just as importantly its age distribution) on an increasingly negative path.

During the years of austerity we have become familiar with the phenomenon that as fiscal spending is cut growth falls making the achievement of fiscal targets even more difficult. Well something similar seems to be happening with migration movements, as part of the benefit to long term growth that accrues from making structural reforms disappears on the other side of the ledger as the workforce shrinks.   Again we are in danger of running round and round in ever diminishing circles.

Reading Valter's post I became impressed with the power of his argument and was struck by the importance of what he had discovered. I therefore took the unusual step of asking him to translate the piece and offering to publish it on my blog. So, without more ado, here is:

Is Portugal Facing A “Shortage Of Japanese"?

Guest Post by Valter Martins


So, about the slow growth/debt connection: I’ve done a quick and dirty mini-RR for the period 1950-2007 ……focusing only on the G7……and if you look at it, you see that most of the apparent relationship is coming from Italy and Japan……And it’s quite clear from the history that both Italy and (especially) Japan ran up high debts as a consequence of their growth slowdowns, not the other way around.” – Paul Krugman, Reinhart-Rogoff, Continued


Despite so much intense debate about the ailment from which Portugal suffers, and the mountain of sacrifices currently being borne by the Portuguese people one fact has gone virtually unnoticed in amongst all the noise - for the first time, at least in the modern era, Portugal’s working age population has started to shrink. Demography and its possible impact on economic growth is a topic which has been largely ignored by practitioners of economic science in recent decades as population growth has by-and-large been on an upward trend. However, as we enter a new period in human history, one in which the upward trend has shifted towards stagnation or even in some cases towards long run decline, the economic and financial implications of this transformation can no longer be ignored. As Nobel economist Paul Krugman indicates in the above quote, some countries have large debt simply because they have low growth.

So what is the common thread that runs through these low-growth high-debt countries? Could it be decelerating labour force growth and eventual labour force contraction? The cases of Italy and Japan are well known. In the case of Portugal, it will be argued here, demographic trends can not only explain a significant part of the slow economic growth the country experienced during the first decade of this century, they can also help us understand the depth of the current recession. More important still, we need to think about the consequences of this continuing lose-lose dynamic for the country’s future in both the short and much longer term.

Economists didn’t always take the view that population dynamics were irrelevant to economic performance. The 1930s gave birth to a serious debate about the possible problem that would arise if many decades of strong population growth were followed by population stagnation and then decline, a debate which was provoked by the fact that birthrates in a number of countries fell below replacement level for the first time in human history during the economic depression. And among the names of those economists who took the problem seriously enough to think and write about it was none other than John Maynard Keynes.

There are, indeed, several important social consequences already predictable as a result of a rise in population being changed into a decline. But my object this evening is to deal, in particular, with one outstanding economic consequence of this impending change; if, that is to say, I can, for a moment, persuade you sufficiently to depart from the established conventions of your mind as to accept the idea that the future will differ from the past.” J.M. Keynes, Eugen Rev. 1937 April; 29(1): 13–17.

While the phenomenon has arrived largely unnoticed Portugal’s total population has long been near to stationary.



As can be seen in the above chart, Portugal’s population has been struggling to find growth momentum since the mid 1980’s (the first time numbers actually dipped downwards) but the years 2010/2011 seem to mark a more fundamental turning point, since it was in that time interval that Portugal’s population started on a long, and possibly irreversible, path of decline. Having long had a total fertility rate of below 1.5 this was a more than predictable outcome, and one that should have been expected ever since the total fertility rate fell (and stayed) below the 2.1 replacement level in 1982.



As is well known, population change is comprised of two major components: natural growth and net migration. Natural growth, births minus deaths, became negative in 2007 and thereafter population growth has become exclusively dependent on having sufficient positive net migration. Up to 2010 this condition was satisfied given the continuing influx of immigrants into the country as can be seen in the chart below.

 


However, since the onset of the 2008 recession, not only have the immigration flows reversed completely, but emigration has started to increase again, thus reanimating a trend that has been constantly present in Portuguese history over decades, even centuries. This is perhaps the most critical factor driving the recent population decline. In fact the decline would have occurred much earlier had it not been for the return of thousands of refugees from the Portuguese colonies in the 1974-1981 period.



According to the European Commission's 2012 Ageing Report, projections for the Portuguese population during the period 2010 - 2060 anticipated that population would peak in 2034, but as we have seen, the latest data show the population unexpectedly reached its peak in 2010 (total population, previous chart), the year in which the population began to decrease (a similar phenomenon seems to have occurred in Spain in 2012, with again a reversal in migrant flows in an otherwise stagnant population being the trigger). This fact that this turnaround comes as a surprise is clearly the result over optimistic assumptions on the net migration front since the numbers for natural growth are well known and change little (although birth numbers are now dropping in many EU countries under the impact of the long recession). Clearly the unexpected factor here is the severity of the recession from which the country is suffering and the size of the exodus of young people who are leaving.

Just to highlight even more the speed with which all this is happening, in Japan, the interval between the beginning of the decline of the working age population and the beginning of total population decline was a full decade. In Portugal this interval was only two years.

Even more relevant than the decline in total population for the purpose of the present discussion is the decline in the working-age population. While the former gives us a good proxy for domestic consumption, it is the later which is important in terms of potential national output. All other things being equal a reduction in the working-age population means a reduction in output. Therefore, the most important detail to catch from the chart above is that the working-age population, defined as the population with ages ranging from 15-64, declined for the first time in Portugal between 2008 and 2009. As highlighted by both Daniel Gros and Paul Krugman if you want to compare economic growth performance as between countries with growing populations and those with declining ones the best indicator to use is undoubtedly GDP per Working Age Person (GDP/WAP).

In the Portuguese case if we take this ratio and compare it with both Real GDP growth and Working Age Population change (my calculations VM), we can get an impression of how variations in the Working Age Population affect the economic growth of a country. Surprisingly or otherwise, the data for Portugal viewed graphically not only confirms the existence of the “workforce effect” – the relationship seen between Real GDP and GDP/WAP - but also suggests that Portugal has already passed the point where this effect is beginning to have a negative impact on GDP growth.



As can be seen in the above chart, until 2008 the growth rate of Real GDP was always higher than the rate for GDP/WAP offering a strong suggestion that labour force growth was having a positive impact on GDP growth. It is noteworthy, however, that both in the period 1986 - 1991 and in the period 2003 - 2008, the growth rates of Real GDP and GDP/WAP almost overlapped. This phenomenon coincided with very low or zero rates of working age population growth and as such the “workforce effect” was mostly neutral. The first of these periods, 1986 - 1991, the stagnation in the workforce was the direct result of the increase in emigration that followed the entry of Portugal in the European Union. The second one coincides with the arrival of the turning point in long term WAP growth, as the size of the working age population irrevocably turns negative.

Indeed, during this early period of emigration towards the EU Portugal’s total population decreased, as shown in the chart Population by age group (above, blue line), but at the time, since the population in general was much younger, and many more new labour force entrants were arriving at working age, the growth rate of the workforce remained slightly positive. In other words, there were still enough Portuguese entering the labour market to replace those who were leaving it (either to retire or to seek a future abroad). In the second period, 2003 - 2008, the large exit of Portuguese nationals, about 700,000 between 1998 and 2008 according to research by the now Economy and Employment Minister Álvaro Santos Pereira, was to some extent offset by an inflow of immigrants, but these were only sufficient in number to maintain the workforce at a stationary level.

All this calm and stability disappeared, however, after 2008 when the growth rate of Working Age Population turned negative, i.e. the labour force began to decline (see graph below). Where the growth rates of Real GDP and GDP/WAP overlap we can surmise that working age population change is having no effect on real GDP growth. Subsequently, however, the growth rate of GDP/WAP becomes higher than the growth rate of Real GDP and thus the "workforce effect” starts to act as a drag on the economy steadily bringing the potential overall growth rate down. In other words, Portugal is now suffering from a "Shortage of Japanese" as Edward Hugh has called the phenomenon, after Paul Krugman originally coined the term to describe the underlying problem which has been afflicting the Japanese economy since the mid-1990s.



The fact that the three lines in the above chart happen to intersect at zero is perhaps just an unfortunate coincidence but is consequences are disastrous, since the downward trend that was already evident accelerated greatly after the onset of the recession. The resulting rise in unemployment not only caused a collapse in the immigration flow, it also led to a sharp increase in emigration. As a result workforce shrinkage intensified even further, as can be seen in the above chart by looking at the growing distance between the Real GDP and the GDP/WAP lines. That is, if the workforce had remained stationary the economy would be growing at similar rates to the GDP/WAP, i.e. above the current level as indeed happened in the period 2003 – 2008.

Naturally, the argument can be advanced here that the recession is a cyclical phenomenon, and this is surely true, there is an ongoing cycle, but the argument being used refers to long term trends – a reversal in direction (or change of sign) for inputs from the labour force component brings down the overall trend growth rate making booms weaker and recessions deeper, all other things being equal. This would seem to be a simple conclusion which stems from elementary growth accounting theory. Naturally, there are other factors which contribute to growth, like multi factor productivity, but again other things being equal you would need more of this to achieve the same growth rate as before under conditions of weakening in the labour force growth component.

Thus the argument is not that economic growth becomes impossible with a stagnant or slowly declining workforce, but simply that it becomes harder to achieve because it relies more on other factors, such as productivity and raising participation rates, but these change slowly over time, and more so in already developed countries. As such trend growth will surely steadily fall. This can be clearly seen in the following chart: while workforce growth was an important source of growth when Portugal was a developing country, its importance fell back as the workforce started to stagnate even as Portugal was approaching converge with other developed countries in terms of productivity. Other factors took over and increased their importance steadily as the economy started to converge with more advanced ones. Now that this catch up process seems to have come to a standstill as well the economy simply can’t growth, at least at rates considered normal. With a stagnant workforce, low growth or no growth is the new normal.



Following standard growth accounting procedures, during the 1970s workforce growth accounted for more than half of Portuguese economic growth (see chart above, my calculations VM), and this contribution had fallen to only 16% in the first decade of this century. However, since 2008 not only has this contribution reversed sign but also the magnitude of the negative effect has begun to increase rapidly. Such that, by 2011 the “workforce effect” could be considered to explain more than 29% of the GDP decline. This “negative drag” will continue, and the effect possibly become greater, as the working age population shrinks further. Had the workforce remained stationary we could surmise the 2010 recovery would have been more pronounced and the 2011 recession wouldn’t have been so deep. This is the principal reason why official growth forecasts have been being constantly revised to the downside, and this will continue to happen until the models the forecasters use adequately incorporate the effects of population decline on economic growth. Adding insult to injury, ignorance of the existence of such effects recently led Portugal’s Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho to suggested young unemployed Portuguese resort to emigration as an escape route from the crisis, advice thousands have now followed thus making a bad situation even worse.

 

Economic growth in Portugal appears to be on a long downward trend, a trend which will only be made worse by the onset of the decline in its working age population. Economic output is now at 2001 levels and thus we can now conclude that the last decade has been completely lost. More worryingly though, is that after such a bad start to this decade, it might not be unreasonable to conclude that this one is also in the process of being lost too.

At best the economy will stagnate in the years to come but the possibility is there that it will continue to regress – especially if nothing is done to stem the outflow of young educated people - and by 2019 it might even be back somewhere in the 1990’s. This is scenario simply cannot be excluded since, in addition to all the other problems the country faces, a situation that would be in any circumstance challenging is now being aggravated by one more variable whose contribution cannot be easily reversed in the short term – the decrease in the working age population. More than the fact in itself, it is the speed at which this is happening which is alarming, and the fact that policymakers appear unaware of the problem. In analyzing the low Portuguese economic growth issue the decrease in the country’s working age population can no longer be ignored! Or at least it is hoped that this will be one of the outcomes of this short report.

To return to where we started, Keynes concluded in his pioneering presentation that a stationary or slowly declining population could increase its standard of life while preserving the institutions society values most if, and only if, the process was managed with the necessary strength and wisdom. On the contrary, he argued, a rapid decline in population, of the kind that we are seeing in Portugal today, would almost inevitably result in a serious decline in living standards and a breakdown in highly valued social security mechanisms. The distinction Keynes drew some 80 years ago between rapid and managed rates of decline seems plausible, reasonable and highly relevant today. What we now need to see are urgent measures taken – initiated by the EU and the IMF - to counter the exodus which lies behind this dramatic decline which is occurring before our eyes, measures which at least try to decrease its speed, because once a process like this gains full velocity it will be very difficult to stop, and we have already seen it gather considerable traction. Ireland is a pointer and a great example to learn from, since it took that country more than a century to recover the population decline precipitated by the natural disaster which hit the country in the middle of the nineteenth century. Postscript From Edward

I have established a dedicated Facebook page to campaign for the EU to take the issue of  emigration from countries on Europe's periphery more seriously, in particular by insisting member states measure the problem more adequately and having Eurostat incorporate population migrations as an indicator in the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure Scoreboard in just the same way current account balances are. If you agree with me that this is a significant problem that needs to be given more importance then please take the time to click "like" on the page. I realize it is a tiny initiative in the face of what could become a huge problem, but sometime great things from little seeds to grow.