Eurozone Round-Up

No surprises this morning as the Bundesbank has slashed the German growth forecast to 1%. This has followed the past few months where there has been tangible uncertainty about Germany’s macroeconomic vision. With criticism coming from those suggesting that Germany has regularly failed to provide a level of investment, which would lead any kind of recovery, coupled with bullish behaviour in keeping its high trade surplus.

The interdependence of the Eurozone has become increasingly clear since the crises, and it was well understood that Germany maintaining its surplus had constrained the growth of the weaker Eurozone members. The German hopes were that this would still help drive growth, but shown through interdependence the German economy is slumping.

Continuing with the lack of surprises the European Central Bank informed us that the expected inflation for this year would be 0.5% with a forecast of 0.7% for 2015. The last target of the ECB that I can recall was that of inflation being 2%. Germany is clearly causing a whole host of trouble due to its economic weight on the Eurozone, but shows no insight into the potential change of policy as they are still predicting growth to rally to 1.6%. Jens Weidmann throws some spurious figures and he then claims to be surprised by a lack of performance, although nothing has been out of the ordinary for the past two years.

Moreover, it is clear that the only person in the ECB that needs more support is Mario Draghi. I would go as far as to claim that he is the Eurozone’s only hope, with his desire to pursue quantitative easing in a strategic and defined manner in aiding structural reform is essential. With an overall aim of returning the size of the ECB’s balance sheet to that of 2012. It is fair to state that asset purchases do not have defined results, but it would be an improvement in comparison to Weidman’s insistence on a more passive approach. I am not the biggest advocate of quantitative easing, and more in line with structural reform to European labor law and the ease of businesses, but I believe that Draghi is representing an interventionist mixture that will lead Europe to sustained and reliable growth.

It will be interesting to see how the year closes off and what 2015 has to offer in terms to tangible change in our approach to modern economies which no longer fall in line with some of the traditional approaches still used and insisted upon.

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The “Inevitability” of Planning

Hayek

There was an argument for the inevitability of planning for example technological change bringing about the existence of natural monopolies, consequently requiring government planning as to some extent the lesser evil than production by private monopolies.

Hayek breaks down this argument once more by considering social infrastructure and existing policies. He asks the question whether the development of natural monopolies is a consequence of new technology, or more simply the economic conditions in which they operate. Hayek argues that the latter is true. He uses the breakdown of the following example:

A large firm having superiority over a small firm, due to technological change may result in greater economies of scale, and an as such lower cost per unit produced and thus begins a process of underbidding and driving out small firms in order to increase market share.

Now at first glance the argument stated above is reasonable, but Hayek notes how this is not the case from a congressional report by the temporary national economic committee in that it states:

“The superior efficiency of large establishments has not been demonstrated; the advantages that are supposed to destroy competition have failed to manifest themselves in many fields. Nor do the economies of size, where they exist, invariably necessitate monopoly.”

This leads Hayek on to argue that it was the policies within countries which facilitated the growth of monopolies, which would then drive out smaller firms. He takes the creation of cartels, and syndications as a consequence of governments seeking regulation in prices and sales as the factor that led to the growth of large monopolies. This goes back to his overarching argument of travelling down one road completely or not at all, as there is greater flaw in attempting a mixture. Then going on to state that “monopoly capitalism” became acceptable even more so as countries such as the United States erected protectionist policies and pursued semi-isolation. He uses the example of Great Britain in stating that planning is not inevitable, in that yet again policy had promoted the growth of natural monopolies. He notes that the British system had been extremely competitive up until 1931 where similar to America protectionist policies arose, and economic planning was introduced and thus monopolies came about. Not of technological change, but the actual structure of the economic system.

He then delves into another segment where planning is not inevitable. Arguing against those who make the assertion that the complexity of modern industrial civilisation creates the need for central planning otherwise we cannot combat its problems effectively. They additionally state that it is increasingly difficult to obtain a coherent picture of economic process, thus things should be coordinated or else dissolve into chaos.

Hayek breaks this down by simply stating that if conditions were simple enough for one person or board to have perfect information then planning works, but as they note in their own argument there is this existing complexity where it is increasingly difficult to attain this information. Thus Hayek argues that decentralisation becomes imperative, as then there is the coordination between separate agencies to bring about “mutual adjustment”. Furthermore, he states that “nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals.” Thus he arrives at the price system and how it operates without the need for recording every single change in information by a central body. It also allows for the greater complexity in our system which helps the growth of the industrial system and that planning ultimately stifles it.

It is here that he comes to point which is of particular interest to me, he writes about how technological change can be stifled in order to maintain the status quo. For example the industrial revolution promised to enhance the productivity of labour; however it came at the cost of employment for many people. So here arises the argument for the need of central planning to efficiently create the change over such that the short term loss does not override the short term gain. To this Hayek states that planning is not needed as either the short term loss can be accepted, or the change can be delayed up until the necessary infrastructure or policy is erected to minimise any loss.

Specialisation & the Allure of Planning

Hayek states there are many good things, which all agree are highly desirable, and possible, that are difficult to achieve within our own lifetime. This develops the allure of planning in that it seems possible to circumvent the barrier that is time, collective action leading to the achievement of these goals.

He then brings this into regards of specialists (technocrats) in that a planned society seems to offer a route to achieving their objectives. He states that this is an illusion and a misdirection of resources, in that the specialist will obviously place greater importance on his aims then others. Hayek uses a nice example to illustrate this:

“The lover of the country-side who wants above all that its traditional appearance should be preserved and that the blots already made by industry on its fair face should be removed, no less than the health enthusiast who wants all the picturesque but insanitary old cottages clear away, or the motorist who wishes the country cut up by big motor roads, the efficiency fanatic who desires the maximum of specialisation and mechanisation no less than the idealist who for the development of personality wants to preserve as many independent craftsmen as possible.”

However, they all have a wish to go about this planning and therefore they will ultimately come into conflict with each other. As such this brings about the central issue, that not everyone can be pleased. It’s attractive to those who have devoted their lives to a single task and want to see it done universally. But practically this cannot occur, also defining to some extent the authoritarian nature of central planning, only one direction can be pursued and thus not everyone will be pleased.

The Abandoned Road?

Hayek

It is here that Hayek develops what can be seen as his doctrine of freedom, this is more of political science then economics but it is integral in understanding his ultimate support of capitalism and the threat socialism and communism pose on liberty.

He identifies how it was the liberation of action and thought which had resulted in the improvement in our general living standards whether at the top or bottom of the social ladder.

“During the whole of this modern period of European history the general direction of social development was one of freeing the individual from the ties which had bound him to the customary or prescribed ways in the pursuit of his ordinary activities”

The example of science and its development alongside freedom is noted as a direct benefit of allowing individual thought, he notes the remarks of Auguste Comte “the perennial Western malady, the revolt of the individual against the species” but rather than Hayek noting this in a derogatory sense he uses it an example of freedom being the force which created Western civilization.

Hayek is often bundled in with far right wing economic policy, with taking a completely laissez-faire approach, but he to some extent is more of an opponent to socialism then a proponent of laissez-faire policy. This originates from his core ideology of libertarianism which he states can be a mobile creed that does not stay on set values when conditions of society change. The other supporters of the liberal cause had made laissez-faire a “hard and fast rule” in which there was a failure to recognise the need for developing institutions to support it. This is identified as the cause for the picking apart of the liberal argument and then the slow progress of policy, as it was (and still is) difficult to change the institutional framework of society.

He uses a delightful metaphor to summarise this:

“The attitude of the liberal towards society is like that of the gardener who tends a plant and in order to create the conditions most favourable to its growth must know as much as possible about its structure and the way it functions.”

Moving on from this he accounts for the rise of the argument for planning, “conscious direction”, and socialism. In that he looks at how society changed from the rough rules of the 18th century accompanied by new thought but slow progress in making gaps which were yet to be filled. Thus, there were those who argued that “it was no longer a question of adding to or improving the existing machinery [of society], but of completely scrapping and replacing it.” Consequently, leading to the removal of unseen forces that produce unforeseen results, and its place have a collective and conscious direction towards deliberately chosen goals.

He accounts for the spread of similar thought throughout Europe as a consequence of the import of German ideas, he notes that the ideas may have not been first conceived in Germany but were “developed to perfection”, and that during Germany’s materialist accumulation these ideas were spread and were encompassed in the government itself which had a large socialist party in the parliament. He then notes a distinction that German thinkers developed in that “Western” was west of the Rhine, and that the society become opponents of this “Western” ideology which was constituted in liberalism, democracy, capitalism, and individualism. As the German people conceived these things to be shallow ideals, or “the rationalisation of selfish interest” thus defining the nature of German society in the early 20th century.