Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Technology In Jobless Recovery

The technology-update dynamics (see previous post) is central to the argument that the current crisis will finish with a jobless recovery, similar to the years after the 2001 bubble burst.

The raw form of the hypothesis suggests that the firms that had shed labour during the recession subsequently invest into technology, new technology in particular, rather than expand their labour force, when demand for their products is renewed. Here are some interesting graphs (source: Fed):
Or, in a different version (using the same data as that behind the second graph above):

(The above graph: US manufacturing growth rate MoM, minus the same without the high-tech sectors. The red line is the 12 month moving average. The second half of the 1990's is clearly over the average of the rest of the period, and the return to normal is rapid after the 2001 drop. Although this is no proof, it seems at least consistent with the hypothesis.)

Both of the above graphs suggest that there was a substantial amount of over-investment into technology before the 2001 crisis, and thus the 2002-04 years saw a productivity rise as a result in part of using the previously acquired technology, and only in part because of purchasing new technologies.

Interestingly, this is not necessarily the case for the current crisis: the level of investments into technology seems to have been on par with the rest: there was no over-investment into technology that would jump out of the data, at least not the data I am looking at now. However, the hypothesis does not necessarily require a previous over-investment, only the potential to increase production without new labour. Thus a lengthy halt to the technology-intensive fixed capital could do the same. If this was to happen so, there would be a fairly straightforward equity price consequence...

I have been trying to find data for comparable variables for the rest of the world. (The usual trouble: lack of comprehensive global statistics). The best I could come up with is the share of computer and communication services in services imports by the WBDI. Each regression had a linear time variable, and a dummy for the 1996-2004 years. Here is the result:

Eastern Europe, Latin America, Middle East, South Asia: either not significant, or low R-squared. East Asia, and the Euro area behaved - at least by this measure - in line with the US and the hypothesis. And so did Sub-Saharan Africa (but why, if the rest of the emerging and developing world did not?)

In sum, these back-of-envelope results do not contradict the hypothesis that jobless recovery stems from an underlying technology dynamics. In the case of the 2001 bubble, it seems that the productivity rise came, at least partially, from the over-investment into technology during the preceding years. This seems to be true for the mature economies, not only the US, but less so for the emerging world.

It also seems to be the case, that the mid-2000's did not accumulate excess technology intensive capital. Thus the current crisis would be different.

At the same time, the length of this recession means that investment is halted for a long time. Perhaps that means a strong demand for the new technologies after the crisis, as well as another jobless recovery.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Jobless Recovery Scenario

The jobless recovery scenario goes like this. (1) During a recovery (as at all other times) the basic labour market identity holds: the number of people employed depends on overall demand and productivity. (2) Productivity growth depends on innovation. (3) While the relationship between employment and demand is short term, the relationship between productivity and innovation is long term. Therefore, when there is a short-term drop in economic activity, you can expect to see a fall in employment, but innovation goes on. (4) Thus when demand rebounds, there are a lot of new technologies around, and it pays to be the first to invest into them.

There was an important ‘if’ at the core of the worse case scenario: the recession will not end if the global confidence level goes where it should - to the bottom of a deep mine. Unlike with real gravity, economics is an odd place, where one might actually lift oneself up by pulling one's own hair, Baron Münchhausen-style. We saw a similar global bubble before the crisis, where most of the justification for one’s enthusiasm kept being others' enthusiasm. Bubbles can work for a surprisingly long time.

For if people want to believe that the non-existent global policy framework works, if people want to believe that the recent return to growth by asset prices has anything to do with fundamentals, and if people are willing to believe that everybody else is willing to believe, then such a global pyramid scheme might even work. In a Startlingly Pink World, there might not even be a reason for this new would-be bubble to burst; reality might grow up to it.

If that happens, an old phenomenon might return: a jobless recovery. Except, this time, potentially on a global level.

When the troubles started, there was an inevitable comparison to the last Bad Times: the 2001 burst of the bubble. Though fun, a consensus quickly emerged that there was no similarity whatsoever… Maybe, on the way out, there will be.

The most conspicuous feature of the last time the mature economies returned to growth was the delay in job creation. When the economy was already booming, employment kept lagging.

Here is the original version:

In the above graph: the red line is US industrial production, and the blue line is unemployment (both are re-based to 1997 M7 = 100%). While production returned to previous levels, unemployment stayed at a high and surprisingly stable level for years.

There has a been a lot of discussion about it; here is my version:

The above graph takes the change of the monthly rate of US unemployment data, and regresses it on the change in the monthly rate of US industrial production, and time. All are moving averages of 20 months (that’s where the R-squared peaked). A one-month lag is employed. The time series is the longest I found: 1961 to 2009, and the relationship is very close: 82% R-squared. The graph shows the fit residuals. The interesting part comes when there is a lengthy period away from the mean: the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s see a long period of ‘too many’ jobs being in the economy, while most of the 1980’s is ‘jobless’, and then comes the ‘jobless recovery’ after the 2001 bubble.

The whole point is that there is an underlying story about productivity. If you think that in the long run, productivity dynamics rule, then the recovery is catch-up time for firms. During recession, investment into new technologies halts, and thus when there is a return to growth, the surviving companies have the option to buy into the latest technology. As the innovation cycle is much longer than most troughs (if you want evidence, look at the OECD patent stats here), this means that for a while you can increase production by investing into new technologies, and thus delay re-hiring people.

The first time this hit me was during the 2001 crisis, when I was heading an investment banking research unit and a physicist friend of mine told me about the latest developments in the physics of computer technology. We realised that if half of what he saw was really getting into production, the economy coming out of recession would be all about this and not about giving jobs back.

Investment into technology has almost entirely stopped all around the world in the past 18 months. Yet, it is very clear that the advancement of technology has been as fast as ever. And thus, we are wondering if there will be a repeat show.

(Although, I am not at all convinced that this really is the end of the recession, see the previous post. But, if it is…) You could well argue that many of the forces that created the jobless recovery seven years ago, are here now, too. In particular, the productivity mechanism might be very similar.

So, are there any signs of this?

Well, look at an interesting confidence measure from the US:

The above graph is the differential between the demand confidence and employment tendencies, survey based, from the US. (That is above zero means that the demand confidence is above the employment confidence level. The red dots are the 2002-04 years, as well as the last month's data.) Not only it confirms the jobless nature of the post 2001 recovery, but it also provides us with one point, which is very much in the same direction.

Furthermore, if you look at the other countries from which comparable data is reported, support for this argument emerges. Here is the picture of the industrial confidence and employment sentiment data from 19 OECD countries (the red line stands for the annual averages, similar confidence differential as above, positive signalling that industrial production confidence is stronger than the propensity to employ people):

And here is the same, dissected: the red countries are the four that saw the most negative differentials during the burst recovery, and the blue is the rest. (The lines are averages for the respective groups):

Just like the US case, it is clear that at least for the countries that saw a jobless recovery last time around, there are signs that this time might not be that different.

All this depends on the optimistic assumption that the crisis is nearing its end. Which is either still (a) in the confidence measures only; or (b) directly related to fiscal spending. (Sorry, no time to illustrate the second one in this post). This makes this scenario just as likely or unlikely as the worst-case one.

If you wanted to pick, probably it will be the size and length of the boost in self belief that will decide. If there is a moral here, then it must be about there being no point in having small Münchhausen lies.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Now What? The W-Shaped scenario

Is this really the end of the recession?

Perhaps, there is reason to be sceptical about last month’s fashion of optimism.

The new, global economics framework for modelling the world economy in a post transition-phase state is still missing. The models we use still have major systemic errors in them, we obviously still have the same valuation problems and mis-specification of the policy mix. Despite some calling for the New Thinking, there is little new that has been put forward in reality.

Much of the problem in valuations is still here. Others argue that while the visible part of the sub-prime mess is mostly cleaned up, a lot of the less visible, but rather sizeable side-effects of it are still on the books, without ‘proper’ valuation. I would add my own observation, that the way the markets approached emerging markets has not really changed much, differentiation is still not really the name of the game. If the capital markets asked for the a realistic risk premium, some emerging market treasuries would have gone into default, whatever the urgent ambulance package was. In any case, we would see a much wider performance range from emerging markets than was the case the past months.

Plus, the policy response has been mostly inadequate. The global economy has gone through a transition phase the past ten years, making national level policy responses unlikely to do the job. The problem is that to tackle the kind of global crisis that is at hand, one would need to have enforceable monetary and fiscal policy in place, on a global level, and that is clearly not there. What has been there instead, after an initial bout of panic, is a set of protectionist measures, and a happen-to-be-at-more-or-less-the-same-time fiscal stimuli around the world that kind of works as harmonised global stimulus.

Yet, the current stimuli take most governments way-way beyond known territories: deficits are up to levels unimaginable before, and debt as well as debt projections are through the roof. For the majority of the governments the current stimulus it is a one-off action. This one really needs to work.

Which takes us to the really bad news: most of the ‘green shoots’ seem to be directly dependent on the fiscal stimuli. There is hardly anything else. Scratch any bit of ‘end of recession’ data around, independent whether the US, China, Germany, or Australia. Although there is some actual money in the pockets, it is not that much. The biggest across the board factor is the change of confidence. In other words, the governments are inducing a new bubble, and we lay all our hopes on it.

This might work. Yet, there is a significant momentum towards further slowing in the global economy. The multiplying effect of the initial hit is just taking shape. The main survival strategy in sectors hit only indirectly by the crisis has been to cut back spending as much as possible, and try to bridge over the shortage of revenues from reserves and bank loans. Banks are still hesitant to lend (even if they are ordered to by their respective governments, as we have seen many examples around the world), which means that the bridging exercise is mostly from own reserves. And there signs that reserves are running out.

If the global confidence boom will not be sustained, and there is plenty of reason why it should not be, then the coming fall might turn out to be even bigger than the one allegedly bottoming. The W-shape scenario might see a deeper, and longer, second trough.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

China Hugs The IMF

(Some good news about China's strategic choices in the global arena)

China's role on the global scene has gone through a spectacular metamorphosis in the past ten years. In the early 1990's China was still very much in the developing economy category. Although it was very large, its international behaviour resembled that of poor countries. Then, around a decade ago, its global action-set started to look more like a powerful emerging market. These were the BRIC years (an term that never reflected any real group of any cohesion, apart from encapsulating a somewhat similarish policy problem). By the mid 2000's China grew out of this category; running short on raw materials it needed to step up the power of its actions. China's search for reliable, long - and short - term sources of ores, hydrocarbon, and food led to a strategic change in the way the country approached its international relations, in particular vis-à-vis developing countries. Hence the new-found Chinese interest in African, South American, South East Asian countries.

As the current crisis intensified, China saw a strategic opportunity to forge closer, long term relationships with a host of weakened emerging markets that found themselves in desperate need of short-term funds. By doing so, China emerged as an alternative to the path offered by the international organisations, the IMF in particular. This reinforced a pre-existing battle between Chinese companies and international aid and development agencies. (I happened to see one of these local battles from close proximity, and can report that (a) it is a very real competition, and (b) all that is said about difference in post-material values is true. The international community's regard for environmental and cultural diversity, and procedural transparency - even if I sometimes feel that its by far not enough -, seems almost entirely lacking on the side of resource extraction focused Chinese approach.)

And thus the news that China committed a large sum (even if only 2.5% of its total reserves) to purchase IMF bonds is so good. Perhaps it has something to do with the country finding itself being less isolated from the global crisis, and thus weaker than it expected. Certainly, the strategic aspirations to take a global role reflecting its perceived self image are also at play here. It almost does not matter. The fact China wants to take stronger role in the global governing institutions as opposed to building its own is the best possible news.

Now the only task is to find out what these global governing institutions will do.