"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues"

( JM Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren" 1930 )

Friday, December 30, 2011

On Competitiveness and Salaries - A European Note

Most mainstream economists agree that the deteriorating condition of the Euro is the outcome of the differences between the EU countries . The perception the Union as it was formed actually deepened the structural economic “imbalances” between a thrifty “North ” and a profligate “South," while lacking the correspondent policy tools which counterbalance those deficiencies .

The "imbalances" and the proper short run policy response have generated a heated debate among the political and economic circles in Europe. Needless to say that any outcome from the European deliberations will have an impact not only on the Continent but on the global economy. However, there is almost no doubt that for the medium and longer run , the “South” must restore its “competiveness” in order to avoid a second round of economic imbalances. So “Competiveness” is THE core issue to be resolved.

What is competiveness all about? The idea behind the “competiveness” theorem is that the last decade brought about excessive wage increases in the South which eventually caused the loss of a competitive edge vis a vis the North and the rest of the World. The result was the formation of unsustainable massive deficits , private and public as well. . Therefore , as we are told , THE logical solution is to reduce wages and / or improve productivity to avoid these deficits and financial crisis. Is it's so? Are really wages and salaries the real reason for the crisis?

One way to analyze the issue is to compare identical products and see their costs structure and selling prices : A product is sold for a price and the cost is divided between labor and capital and profits ( 50, 50). If Labor cost increases, lets say to 60 , and you want to maintain the 50 profit, the price must increase to 110 . (In that case the RELATIVE weight of labor also increases).

The same logic applies to the national economy: GDP, the “product” of an economy is roughly split between its "costs" i.e. Labor in the form of wages and Capital in the form of interests, amortization and profits . If the labor share increase, it means that in relative terms the worker take a bigger slice of the economy ( and vice versa) .

The following graph which compares two representative countries ( Spain vs. Germany) i.e. the typical “North” and “South” Economies in terms of salaries and labor share speaks for itself

Based on data extracted on 07 Dec 2011 from OECD. Stat ( Annual Income Share real ULC)

The interpretation of the graph is very simple. Any competitive misalignment between the two countries cannot be attributable ONLY to the Labor costs. I will make use of a simple numerical example to illustrate the point: Suppose that in the 80 a German and a Spanish car car were both sold at 10 k Euros. In such case workers got Ap. 7500 Euros ( “labor share”) of it and Capital got the balance, i.e., 2,500 E . If there was no change in the relative prices, in 2007 workers received only Ap. 6,400 Euros and capital 3,600 . Now, if Spanish cars became more expensive and lost competiveness, lets say 11k, part of the blame for the price increase MUST be attributable to Capital as they got for sure more than 3600 ( in our case 3960 E)

In other words, what the figures tell us is that any competitive loss, if there was any such phenomenon of the Spanish economy was necessarily, among other factors the outcome of higher profit rates. Therefore the burden of any alignment process should be bear ALSO by Capital. The calls to reduce salaries in order to restore competitiveness are economically wrong and morally flawed, as Capital enjoyed a 30 years period of a genuine Bonanza.

This graph also tells us something about the importance of adopting a cross borders perspective. If the European working people adopted a pan European perspective, for example by advocating the increase of labor share in each and every country instead of adopting a sort of national perspective, all the working people, including the Germans ( and the rest of economy as well…) could gain from such common stance. But let´s leave that for another blog ….

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