US Demographics – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

First of all, I should apologize for readers for probably the longet hiatus ever on this blog. I am still trying to balance a busy day job with having time to pen blog posts. I am sure that I will manage to get a nice rythm going at some point.

As such, I thought that I would return to a topic that I actually do know a little about and this interesting piece in the WSJ by Carl Bialik on US fertility and the idea of a crisis driven birth collapse in the US.

A recent report said the U.S. birth rate has dipped to a record low level. But another measure of the nation’s fertility remains comfortably above its historic low. The mismatch shows that even in a country with comprehensive birth statistics, summarizing population trends is far from straightforward.

The article makes no judgement either way and essentially keeps to lining up the arguments without making a statement about which measures are most correct. The main debate is driven by reports that the US birth rate has plummeted since the financial crisis and that this negative shock could have a lasting impact on US population dynamics.

However, as the article suggests, measuring fertility is not straightforward and indeed while the article builds its discussion around the notion of total births per 1000 women (crude birth rate) and the total fertility rate (average children born to women in their childrearing age), no mention is given of total cohort fertility which is the completed fertility per cohort. Arguably, this last measure is the most important one, but also the most difficult one to observe since we can only see this after the fact (although we can make qualified guesses of where this is headed for a given cohort based on the interaction between tempo and quantum effects of fertility).

So, what is the story in the US? Well, the crude birth rate recently hit all time lows, but the total fertility rate remains stable and close to replacement levels and this latter point is, in my view, giving too little credence in relation to the most recent concerns raised on US fertility.

However, there is no doubt that the financial crisis appears to have had a noticeable impact on US fertility patterns. In theory, an economic recession should not have a lasting impact on completed fertility. This is mainly because a normal economic recession does not have a lasting impact of families’ life course trajectory and decisions to have children. It may lead to an increase in postponement, but that effect should be reversed once the recession ends.

The key question is whether this particular economic crisis is different and whether we can expect a lasting impact on fertility in the US (and perhaps elsewhere)?

I would venture a hesitant no here, but the jury is still out, and there is no doubt that the specific nature of the recent economic crisis as one of being associated with a structural level of too much debt is  a worry. A prolonged period of deleveraging which now appears to have begun the US and elsewhere in the OECD could lead to a permanent and irreversible postponement of fertility decisions in the US, but so far the fact that US fertility remains close to replacement levels (and never dipped below) is a definite positive that has, so far, received too little attention I think.

Grantham Lays Down the Gauntlet on US Growth and Demographics

If Carl Bilak’s article does little to come up with an argument for or against the notion of the sturdiness of US demographic fundamentals a recent piece from GMO by Grantham is much more vocal in its worry that the US economy may be headed for zero growth and that demographics are to blame.

First of all, Grantham is fundamentally pointing to falling trend growth in the US. This is the case not only in the US but across the OECD. Indeed, trend growth if measured with a very broad stroke is probably falling in all major global economies, developed as well as so called emerging economies. The reasons for this are pretty simple. All the things we use to calculate or account for growth are slowing down; demographics, capital formation and technology/productivity although this last bit is surrounded by a huge uncertainty and could surge or slump. Most economists would see productivity as a part of the process (i.e. it is endogenous) and thus something we can affect, but technological progress does tend to have an unpredictable and disruptive cycle which is difficult to account for.

Still, to take such a broad sweep at growth and apply equally across global economies is too general a narrative to hold up to closer scrutiny.

Enter US population dynamics and its coming “growth” effect.

On US demographics, I think Grantham focuses on long term trends of working age population growth which are obviously down in the US. However, they are down for all countries and over such a long time frame that it becomes meaningless to discuss them without some aspect of relativity. Retiring baby boomers are a drag on US growth and the lack of rising female labour force participation (because it has already happened) is also a minus, but this is also pushing the narrative a little bit.

Surely, a boost in growth from increasing female labour force participation can only happen once and is not strictly a “drag” on growth when it ends. Crucially however, Grantham interprets exhibit 1 depicting growth in the US working age population in a “glass half empty” kind of way. We are told to focus on the declining trend, but I would note the remarkable fact that the US working age population is set to enjoy positive growth beyond 2030. That is a major relative tailwind compared to the rest of the developed world and indeed emerging markets. All countries in the world have a large challenge in the context of the compatibility between ageing and a market economy with pension schemes and health care systems, but the US seems in a relatively good position to cope with this from the point of view of demographics.

Going back to the discussion on fertility, I am surprised that Grantham does not focus a bit more on the fact that it never slumped massively below replacement level in the US which augurs for strong tailwinds to household formation. If you combine this with intra-US labour mobility you get a strong foundation for growth I think. Or at least, you get a more nuanced view of the US compared to for example many other OECD economies (Japan and Europe) where demographics are much more decisively manifesting themselves in the form of headwinds.

Two charts from the GMO piece that should make us worry a bit though are ex 2 and 3. Working less hours and falling labour force participation (and it is falling not only for women) are poison for growth because it reduces the potential growth rate per unit rate of inflation. Popular speaking, it reduces the natural level of output before the output gap turns positive (and you get excess inflation and no real growth). This is a huge challenge in the US and the persistently falling labour force participation rate in the US in a post crisis is a worrying development which needs some sort of structural/reform response as it is completely unrealistic to expect the Fed’s quanto easing policies to lead to a structurally better labour market.

In the end, I would say that it is difficult to disagree with the overall narrative set out by Grantham because it really sticks to the straight and narrow and basically says what we already know, name that trend growth will fall.

Critically however, Grantham notes the concept of “zero growth” and thus refers to the idea that trend growth in the US may fall to zero. I don’t see that and this is an important qualifier.

I think there are a lot of economies in the OECD where “trend growth” as defined by conventional economic models and theories may be zero (Japan, Italy, Spain and some parts of Eastern Europe).  But I would not put the US in that group and demographics represent one of the main reasons for this. There may be many reasons why the US economy may slump to zero growth in the future, but demographics aren’t one of them.

Other Alpha Sources

I have been enjoying myself in the Austrian Alps last week and hence the lower output. Here is my look though, of a number of notable news stories and contributions.

Global Liquidity

Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB has penned a speech (and argument) on global (excess) liquidity. Izabella likes it and I agree with her that it is a good piece. I am not sure though that it is that much different than the Savings Glut argument put forward by Bernanke, but I may be missing the fine print (i.e. need to read it more carefully). The biggest problem I have is that he assumes that the lack of safe government (i.e. AAA rated assets) is cyclical and due to market failure or other “temporary” factors. Izabella interprets it as follows,

What’s the solution to this vicious liquidity circle? Simple, says Cœuré. The euro area needs to regain its role as a global supplier of safe assets. Something which could be achieved by a) ensuring that Eurozone countries have become fiscally sound and b) diverting excess liquidity from other zones back into “programme countries” by way of the IMF.

I disagree. The failure of euro zone economies and indeed large parts of the OECD edifice in general to provide “safe haven” assets is deeply structural and tied to population ageing. Unfortunately, there is little prospect that the euro zone economies will be able to supply AAA rated securities for a long time and herin lies the rub. Of course, if we are talking euro bonds, but then again. I will believe it when I see it.

Japan and the currency wars

A recent Bloomberg article suggested that Japan has been “secretly” selling JPY to try to stem the tide and force through depreciation of the Yen.

Japan used so-called stealth intervention in November as the government sought to stem yen gains that hammered earnings at makers of exports ranging from cars to electronics.Finance Ministry data released today showed Japan conducted 1.02 trillion yen ($13.3 billion) worth of unannounced intervention during the first four days of November, after selling a record 8.07 trillion yen on Oct. 31, when the yen climbed to a post World War II high of 75.35 against the dollar. The currency’s strength has eroded profits at exporters such as Sharp Corp. and Honda Motor Co., just as faltering global growth undermines demand.

Open market operations to sell domestic currency are so old school. Didn’t they get the memo in Japan? In a world where all major central banks are either at or very close to the zero bound, it is central bank balance sheet expansion (quantitative easing) that matters. On this note, both Japan and the Fed are being left decisively behind by the ECB and BOE (at least in the past six months). Of course, even the usage of “standard” measures in Japan is being contested and as long as this is the case, the Yen will continue to strengthen.

Don’t bet on deflation with the current team of global central bankers

Elsewhere, I am wondering where all the deflation, let alone disinflation, is. I am a sworn deflationist and I believe in the main thesis of the deleveraging/depression/deflation crowd. However, I have the utmost respect for the inflationist bias of global central banks and with the current batch of policy makers at the helm, deflation is a very remote risk.

The latest data show that inflation in China recently quickened as well as producer prices in the UK increased in the week that the BOE announced another round of QE. Of course, this is not all clear cut. Chinese real M1 (YoY) recently moved into negative territory for the first time since 1996 and in the UK, it is noteworthy that core inflation (ex food, beverages, tobacco and petroleum) came in noticeably lower in January.

I will change my views on the basis of changing data, but I am beginning to think that the bout of global headline disinflation we are expecting as a result of the global slowdown will reverse itself much, much quicker than many (including me) have expected. Arguably, we still need decisive easing in emerging markets and QE3 from the Fed, but it is more a matter of when and not if this happens and as such, global central bankers remain fully committed to creating inflation.

The main problem so far for those arguing for strong central bank action (including me) is the absence of nominal growth in output in excess of consistently rising headline inflation. Could this be a result of doing too little, perhaps, but at the moment stagflation remains the best way to describe our current economic situation and thus inflation in all forms is a drag on growth. Should the genie finally come out of the bottle in the form of consistent wage increases central bankers may find that they got more than they bargained for even if the alternative is equally painful.

The Greek experiment is about to end

Greece remains the main talking point and also the only thing that appears to prevent equity markets ripping to new highs. Greece is bankrupt and while I understand that the patience of the rescue committee will run out at some point, I am astounded that anyone expects this hideous experiment to end well. Greece will see its fifth year of contraction this year and for what? A membership of a currency union that does not work anyway?

We are told by the Troika, the EU and the IMF that failure to reach a deal would be catastrophic and thus that Greece has no way out but to take the medicine. However, Greece has a real choice and the stronger she is pushed the more obvious the end result is. Internal devaluation and decades of austerity don’t work; not in Greece and not elsewhere. This remains the KEY issue that the euro area politicians and the ECB have not understood. The social fabrics of society won’t stand the pressure and strain. Textbooks tell us that the cure is simple when you can’t devalue, but practical experience have now shown otherwise.

I am neither on the Greeks’ nor the IMF/Troika’s side, but I simply point out the obvious destiny of current events; failure! Even if Greece manages to appease its creditors with austerity, the end result in terms of Greek macroeconomic balances is still unsustainable and thus the underlying problems will not have been solved.

The ECB and the IMF will likely face significant drawdowns on their Greek bondholdings regardless of whether they use such drawdowns as  ”carrot” for Greece to push through austerity measures. This is what the establishment has not yet understood.

MF Global investigation fails to uncover illegal activity?

Megan McArdle has an amazing article suggesting that the investigation on the failure of MF Global is finding it difficult to uncover anything illegal.

Megan quotes a piece from Reuters (no link available)

Lawyers and people familiar with the MF Global investigation of the firm that was run by former Goldman Sachs head Jon Corzine say that even though the hunt is still on to find out whether or not officials at MF Global intended to pilfer customer money in a desperate bid to keep the brokerage from failing, the trail at this point is growing cold.

This seems very odd to me even if I have not followed the aftermath in detail. I completely agree with the sentiment expressed by Megan.

I don’t understand how this could be true. To be clear, I am not saying that it couldn’t be true-only that I don’t understand how such a thing could have happened. There is more than a billion dollars missing from supposedly segregated client accounts. I understand that it was chaotic, but what kind of chaos causes you to accidentally move money out of money that any moderately sophisticated compliance system should have automatically flagged for approval?

While my professional responsibilities are confined to the smooth running of a macro research product I sit in an office, and work, with asset managers and ever since the failure of MF global I would imagine that their general level of concern has increased. This is understandable. If your main counterparty as an asset manager (i.e. your prime broker) essentially decides to steal your deposits and/or allocate them to losing trades against the principle of segregated accounts, it really does not matter what you do. No matter the tightness of the shop run on the asset managers’ end, he will face significant and perhaps even fatal losses.

Obviously counterparty risk is as old as finance itself and any decent asset manager today will deal with more than one broker and even have a strategy on how to manage counterparty risk. Ultimately though, mutual trust between asset managers and their prime brokers is a commodity which has been severely impaired by the MF Global failure and this is an issue for all players in financial markets.

Dealing with vintage data in economic forecasts using instrument variables (wonkish!)

A recent note from the George Washington University points to an interesting study from Warwick University on the forecasting of data vintages in the context of US output and inflation forecasts. The problem is as follows;

Consider a simple benchmark autoregressive model that a forecaster might use to forecast an economic variable yt. In order to estimate the parameters to be used for the forecast, typically the forecaster will obtain the most recently updated data on yt (i.e. the vintage of yt available at that time) and estimate the model using those data. However, the data in this single time series may in fact be coming from different data generating processes. The data some time back in the series have gone through monthly revisions, annual revisions, and perhaps several benchmark revisions. The most recent data, however, have been only “lightly revised,” as Clements and Galvão term it. Therefore, Clements and Galvão argue that the data in a single vintage are of“different maturities.” Forecasters may want to forecast future revisions to data as well as exploit any forecast ability of data revisions to improve forecasts of future observations. In their article, Clements and Galvão suggest that a multiple-vintage vector autoregressive model (VAR) is a useful approach for forecasters working with data subject torevisions. This comment discusses the importance of taking revisions into consideration and compares the multiple-vintage VAR approach of Clements and Galvão to a state-space approach.

This is a significant issue but remember; if the following holds, we need not worry too much about it.

If the revisions are unpredictable and the early data are efficient estimates of future data, then we may not need to be concerned about the different vintages.

Most economists assume that the statement above is true and simply force through their model. Being a great believer in practical usability when it comes to empirical economics, I would argue that in most cases this will not cause too many problems in most cases. However, a growing body of evidence suggest two important issues to consider. Firstly, revisions are predictable and thus provide important ex-ante information which should be incorporated into the the forecast. Secondly, even if revisions are unpredictable, the manner in which data is revised may itself provide important information on future data readings.

I agree, but the problem is potentially much more severe. Another issue then concerns that situation where you try to forecast Y(t) as a function of X(t) where both variables may be subject to revisions. Normally, we would solve this issue by restricting X(t) to variables where revisions are minimal (or absent alltogether). One way to do this is to use market based data (market prices, closing values of securities etc) which are, by definition, not revised. However, in the context of the e.g the classical leading indicators framework pioneered by Geoffrey H Moore, this issue re-emerges X(t) is cast in the form of real economic variables (themselves potentially subject to revision).

We have replicated and refined many of the LEIs described by Moore et al and applied it to various economic data series with specific fitting of a time series regression in each case. However, such an approach may still suffer from vintage data issues (as described above. One solution that I been thinking about is to imagine two forms of right hand variables. X(t, economic) and X(t, market based); if the latter is unrevised it might be possible to find an instrument for X(t, economic) (final revision!) using a variation of X(t, market based). This would, in my opinion, constitute an elegant way to solve the issue of data revisions in your explanatory variables.

In practice, you could also try to replace Y(t, economic) with Y(t, market based), but this is probably too a-theoretical and ad-hoc.

Does the OECD's 'better life index' sound like fun?

I am not sure the OECD’s better life index is meant to be fun. But I have had some fun playing with it. The index is interactive. The fun comes from giving different weight to 11 different criteria (or topics as they are described by the OECD) and then observing how this affects rankings of well-being of OECD countries.

The criteria used in the index are: housing, income, jobs, community (individuals’ perceptions of the quality of their support networks), education, environment (air pollution by tiny particulate matter), governance (voting and transparency), health, life satisfaction, safety (assaults and homicide) and work-life balance (working mothers, total hours worked and leisure).

Under the default setting, with all criteria being given equal weight, the countries that come out on top are Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Sweden. If you suppress all criteria other than income, Luxembourg is a long way ahead of the field, followed by the United States and Switzerland. The income measure used in the study (reflecting household financial income and wealth) has Australia in 14th place and New Zealand in 25th place.

The substantial difference between the outcomes of these weighting systems is interesting. In a previous post I observed that all well-being indicators tend to tell similar stories about well-being levels in different countries. The two observations are actually consistent. My research covered a larger number of countries, including many poor countries as well as the wealthy democracies of the OECD. Well-being indicators tend to tell a similar story when wealthy countries are compared with poor countries, but can tell different stories when wealthy countries are compared to each other.

Equal weighting of a range of indicators and a focus on income alone seems to me to be equally arbitrary approaches to well-being comparisons. Well-being is obviously affected by factors other than income, but it would be difficult to argue that all relevant factors are equally important. Value judgments have to be made to determine appropriate weights. An appropriate weighting system might be derived by conducting surveys to obtain weights reflecting the values of people in different countries. Alternatively, surveys could be used to obtain weights reflecting the values of people with different political views in particular countries, or across the whole of the OECD.

In the absence of such survey evidence, I have looked at the rankings for three somewhat extreme political groups drawn from my own imagination: Scrooges, Socioholics and Warm Fuzzies. As I imagine them, all three groups perceive governance and safety as being important to well-being. The Scrooges add income as the only additional factor. The Socioholics add housing, jobs, education and health in addition to income. The Warm Fuzzies exclude income and all the additional factors added by the Socioholics, but replace those factors with community, environment, life satisfaction and work-life balance.

So, which countries come out on top of the welfare rankings according to the values of these three political groups?

Scrooges: The countries that come out on top are Australia, Luxembourg and the United States. New Zealand is placed about 8th, behind Sweden, Austria, Canada and UK.

Socioholics: Australia and Canada come out on top, followed by New Zealand and the United States.

Warm Fuzzies: Australia, Denmark and Sweden are on top, followed by New Zealand, Canada and Norway.

What do I get out of this? My main observation is that Australia seems to come out fairly well, whatever coloured political lenses you use. The well-being of New Zealanders also looks fairly good, particularly if you adopt either a Socioholic or Warm Fuzzy perspective.

Having had some fun, the more serious question that comes to mind is whether a focus on the OECD’s well-being indicators (and other similar constructions) is likely to distract political attention away from much-needed economic reforms to improve the economic strength of some economies. For example, if well-being indicators suggest that people in some lovely country (New Zealand comes to mind) tend to enjoy living standards substantially higher than other countries with comparable per capita GDP levels, there may be a tendency for the government of that country to become complacent about establishing conditions more favourable to further improvement of living standards.

Public Pension Crisis in OECD Countries

The central aim of my bachelor’s thesis is to demonstrate the unsustainability of public pension system in OECD countries in the longer run through the lens of a rigorous theoretical and empirical analysis.

The origins of contemporary public pension schemes date back to 19th century when Bismarck Germany in 1881 first adopted a universal old-age public pension system based on pay-as-you-go (PAYG) funding principle. The principle itself captures full advantages of high (stationary) population growth rate. In the simplest form, PAYG pension scheme is based on the notion of generational solidarity upon which current generations pay mandatory social security contribution into the public scheme. Aggregate contributions are then paid out to current retirees. The cycle is then expanded through generations. However, PAYG funding scheme is sustainable as long as the population growth is high and above the marginal productivity of the capital. Back in 19th century, public pension schemes were adopted under unrealistic assumptions about future population prospects. In 19th century, advanced countries experienced high population growth rate, high fertility rate and an extremely low share of dependent old population that was receiving universal old-age support from PAYG pension schemes. These set of assumptions was crucial to the stability of government-provided old-age support embodied in the public pension schemes.

The sustainability of PAYG pension system requires the equivalence of population growth rate and real interest rate. In the early 20th century, the advanced world shifted towards aging population, declining fertility rates and lower labor market entry rate. In broad terms, a growing old-age dependency ratio led to the pure disequilbrium effects. In a theoretical framework, I re-examined the neoclassical framework of lifecycle hypotheses embodied in Samuelson and Cass-Yaari models of life-cycle utility maximization. The lifecycle hypothesis is based upon the assumption of the three-period model where individuals maximize the consumption in the course of a lifetime. In the first period, individuals do not discount the future consumption since, in this period, individuals acquire the human capital. In the second period individuals enter the working age and discount the future consumption. Hence, in the third period, individuals retire consume the output produced in the working-age period. Since future discounting is compounded, the lifetime consumption increases geometrically. In purely analytical terms, the individuals maximize the utility of consumption through time preference rate.

Considering the abovementioned equivalence between population growth rate and real interest rate, the stability of the equilibria requires the period discount rate to equal the population growth rate. If population growth rate decreases, the stability of the equilibria requires that individuals decrease the future discount rate by the same rate to keep the PAYG pension system within the theoretical limit. The rigorous theoretical formulation of the neoclassical model of lifetime consumption, which essentially captures the necessary conditions for equilibrium stability of public pension schemes, had been put forth by Paul A. Samuelson in his seminal contribution to the theoretical foundations of stationary “PAYG” public pension scheme .

In the course of the last decades, OECD countries have experienced a significant drop in fertility rates, population growth and, under the political climate of social democracy, a widespread adoption of early retirement schemes and generous social security benefits. In addition, labor market exit age dropped significantly, initiating a trend towards the unprecendent growth of generational indebtedness.

The OECD estimated that between 2000 and 2050, old-age dependency ratio is forecast to increase to the largest extent in Japan (193 percent), Spain (136 percent), Portugal and Greece (135 percent). The astonishing increase in the estimated old-age dependency ratio directly reflects the declining fertility rate in OECD countries from 1960s onwards. I estimated the ratio of fertility rate between 1960-1970 and 2000-2006 for OECD countries at around 2, which means that average fertility rate between 1960-1970 was twice the fertility rate between 2000-2006. The highest fertility ratios were found in Spain (2.23), Italy (1.96), Ireland (2.00) while the lowest ratios were found in Denmark (1.37), Netherlands (1.72) and the United States (1.46).

High and stable effective retirement age is the main assumption underlying the stationary stability of PAYG pension system. In the 20th and 21st century, OECD countries have experienced an unprecendent decline in effective retirement age. Blöndal and Scarpetta (2002) estimated the decline in labor market exit age for OECD countries between 1960 and 1995. The female labor market exit age had declined significantly in Ireland (10.7 years), Spain (9.1 years) and Norway (8.8 years). Male labor market exit age exerted persistent decline in all developed OECD countries except for Iceland. The exit age declined significantly in the Netherlands (7.3 years) and Spain (6.5 years).

In a large part, declining labor market exit age has confluenced the rapid growth of unemployment and disability benefits and early retirement incentives from the second half of the 20th century onwards. As the OECD correctly contemplated, in a number of countries, disability pensions and unemployment benefits can be used as de facto early retirement schemes. In a large part, widespread growth of early retirement schemes and implicit incentives for moral hazard in retiring too early via unemployment and disability schemes is held responsible by generous welfare states in the aftermath of the World War II.

When I examined various features affecting early retirement choices, I came across an interesting finding. I regressed labor market exit age and marginal tax rate in a cross section of 23 OECD countries in 2007. I estimated the relationship between exit age and marginal tax rate using a classical OLS linear regression model. The estimate suggests that, holding all other factors constant, if marginal tax rate increases by 1 percentage point, average labor market exit age decreases by 1.88 months. Surprisingly, 51.74 percent of sample variation is explained by marginal tax rate alone. The sample constant is statistically significant, suggesting that if the hypothetical marginal tax rate were zero, the average labor market exit age in randomly chosen country from OECD sample would be 69.65 years. The sample constant is consistent with a prior theoretical expectations since it concurs with the “substitution effect” hypothesis that higher marginal tax rate leads to lower labor supply and fewer working hours.

The cost of early retirement in OECD countries
Source: T.T. Herbertsson & J.M. Orszag, The Cost of Early Retirement in OECD, 2001. OECD, Pensions at Glance, 2009.

Fiscal imbalances arising from unsustainable PAYG public pension systems in OECD countries cannot be assessed without a sufficient estimate of economic costs of unfunded pension liabilities. I approximated the cost of early retirement using Auerbach-Kotlikoff-Gokhale (1999) methodology that directly estimates the size of generational imbalances created by public social security systems. Large and rapidly unsustainable net pension liabilities occured in late 1980s. Van den Noord and Herd (1993) estimated the size of net pension liabilities in seven major OECD countries. The results suggest that continental European countries have had the largest net pension liabilities in terms of GDP. The size of pension liabilities in France and Italy had been about 2.5 times the size of their respective GDPs and twice the stock of the public debt.

Gokhale (2008) directly estimated fiscal imbalances arising from unfunded pension liabilities to current and prospective generations. The size of generational fiscal imbalance, as a share of the GDP, is extremely large and rapidly unsustainable in all OECD countries. In fact, the size of the imbalance is the most severe in Greece (875 percent of the GDP), France, Finland and the Netherlands (500 percent of the GDP) while it is more than twice the size of the GDP in all OECD countries except for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiscal imbalance in OECD countries
Source: J. Gokhale, Measuring Unfunded Obligations of European Countries, 2009.

I built the econometric model of public pension expenditure for a cross section of 23 OECD countries in 2007 to assess which variables might explained the cross-country variation in public pension expenditures. I’ve been aware of the possible drawbacks of choosing a cross-section model since it might be vulnerable to specification errors and the unbiasedness of regression coefficients. To account for possible specification bias, I conducted Kolmogorov-Smirnov, Shapiro-Wilk and Jarque-Bera normality tests. By performing normality tests, I have examined whether the normality assumption of normally distributed error terms is valid in the studied sample of 23 OECD countries considering error terms as identically and independently distributed.

In the set of explanatory variables that might yield consistent and robust estimates of regression coefficients I chose 10 various demographic, economic and institutional independent variables. Apart from demographic and economic variables, institutional variables are dichotomous since the institutional features can be captured by binary modes of choice. The dependent variable is the size of public pension expenditures in the share of the GDP.

The results suggest that public pension expenditures are positively correlated with the share of population aged 65 and older (0.746**), difference in life expectancy after age 65 between 1960 and 2005 (0.477*) and dichotomous variable for continental European countries (0.697**) where * and ** indicate the statistical significant of the sample correlation coefficient at the 5% and 1% level. The estimates suggests that the probability of higher pension expenditures in the share of the GDP is likely to occur in a continental European country known for a relatively large share of older population and a high difference in life expectancy after age 65 between 1960 and the present. On the other hand, public pension expenditures are negatively correlated with average effective retirement age (-0.475**), private pension funds as a share of GDP (-0.658**), labor market exit age (-0.523**), dichotmous variable for Anglo-Saxon countries (-0.544**) and a dichotomous variable for private pension system (-0.672**), where ** denotes the statistical significant of the sample correlation coefficient at the 1% level. Again, the estimates suggest that the probability of lower pension expenditure is likely to occur if a randomly chosen country from the OECD sample is Anglo-Saxon and has a high effective retirement age, large private pension funds as a share of the GDP, high labor market exit age and a mandatory private pension system. The coefficients suggest that in repeated sampling, the estimated sample correlation coefficient will include the true or correct population value in 99 percent of cases.

I conducted the econometric model which consisted of 8 regression specifications. I chose double-logarithmic model which yields direct elasticities as regression coefficients. However, I added two exceptions. In regression specifications 5 and 6, I chose a mixed specification mostly due to the inclusion of private pension funds (assets) variable in the regression specification. Unfortunately, but the share of private pension funds in Greece in 2007 equals 0 percent of the GDP which does not enable the researcher to apply double-logarithmic model as the basis of regression specification.

The estimates suggest that the share of population aged 65 and older is statistically singificantly positively related to the share of public pension expenditures in the GDP. Hence, the elasticity of public pension expenditures with respect to effective retirement age ranges from -1.465 to -4.935, suggesting that an increase in effective retirement age by an additional year leads to per unit increase in public pension expenditures by more than a unit increase in the share of the GDP. The coefficient of private pension funds is highly statistically significant. The elasticity of public pension expenditures with respect to private pension funds (as a share of the GDP) ranges from -0.34 to -0.38 and is statistically significant at the 1% level. The elasticity suggests that a 10 percentage point increase in the share of private pension funds reduces the share of public pension expenditures in the GDP, on impact, by 3.4-3.8 percent, holding all other factors constant. In addition, the estimates of coefficients for dichotomous variables suggest the following: the probability of higher public pension expenditures (as a share of GDP) is likely to occur in continental European countries with mandatory private pension system. Five estimates of dichotomous coefficients are statistically significant at the less than 10% level.

The significance of dichotomous (dummy) coefficients has been tested by beta coefficient analysis to rank the magnitudes of separate effects of explanatory variables on public pension expenditures as dependent variable. The results suggest that continental European countries are significantly more likely to face higher public pension spending in the share of GDP compared to Anglo-Saxon countries.

Earlier I mentioned the necessity of normality assumption in yielding robust, consistent and unbiased estimates of regression coefficients. The assumption has been questioned by conducting Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (K-S), Jarque-Bera test (J-B) and Shapiro-Wilk (S-W) normality test. The aim of the testing the normality assumption is to observe whether error terms distribute normally so that estimated test statistics, standard errors and confidence intervals are reliable. In setting test statistic, I set the normality assumption as null hypothesis. The results from K-S, J-B and S-W tests show that the null hypothesis cannot be rejected at 5% level, suggesting that the normality assumption is valid in the studied sample. Hence, test statistics, standard errors and confidence intervals are both valid and reliable.

The meaningful question to evaluate the prospects of the coming public pension crisis is how to reverse the growth of fiscal imbalances and reform public pension system as to avoid erratic generational indebtedness. Aging population and the growth of old-age dependency ratio trigger an enormous future burden on public finances in OECD countries. Lower fertility rate and population growth shall place an incurable burden on the stability of PAYG public pension systems. The estimates suggest that life-expectancy after the age of 65 is likely to increase by 2050 and gradually approach the age of 90 for both male and female. Assuming the effective retirement age is 65, the remaining life expectancy is 25 years or almost one-third of the average lifetime. As Alemayehu and Warner (2004) suggest: “Old-age health care costs thus will impose increasingly severe pressure on private finances and government coffers. Indeed, applying our age-specific estimates to the age distribution anticipated for the year 2030, we find that if nothing is done to alter current patterns of health care, per capita health care expenditures will rise by one-fifth due to population aging alone.

The long-term pension reform that aging societies of the West should undertake is a complementary measures of three key policy features of the reform.

First, the transition to fully-funded retirement savings accounts is the only viable and sound pension reform that can alleviate the damage generated by the growing fiscal imbalances. The theoretical foundation of the transition from public pension systems to fully-funded pension system has been laid down by Feldstein and Liebman (2001). The authors derived an algebraic solution which suggests that keeping a PAYG public pension system does not attenuate the persistence of a growing demographic pressure on the stability of public pension system. As I discussed earlier, PAYG system crucially depends on three key assumptions: high fertility rate, very low share of population older 65+ and high population growth. These assumptions are incompatible with actual demographic parameters and, hence, OECD countries should undertake a drastic transition towards fully-funded pension systems based on individual savings accounts. Otherwise, the growing demographic pressure will inevitably result in the exponential growth of generational debt, creating an enormous deadweight loss for current and prospective generations.

Fully-funded pension system is based on the premise of investing pension contributions into the capital market, earning a compound interest over time. The stock of individual’s lifetime earnings is paid in the form of annuities upon individual’s withdrawal from the labor market. In addition, there is a growing disparity between the implicit return of PAYG public pension system and real rate of return in the capital market. Under realistic assumptions, such as that the marginal product of capital (MPK) is below the welfare-maximizing level and the real rate of return exceeds the implicit return from PAYG system, fully-funded pension system would not create a deadweight consumption loss to the working-age population. In fact, Feldstein and Liebman (2001) derived an analytic solution for the transition to fully-funded pension system in which the transition induces a short-term consumption loss in the next period while, at the same time, it creates a geometrically-growing future consumption for both retired and working-age population.

The only remaining question is whether the real rate of return would compensate the consumption loss of working-age population and, hence, increase the stock of future consumption to all generations. According to Feldstein and Liebman (2001), assuming 6.5 percent inflation-adjusted rate of return, the payroll cost of fully-funded pension system would represent only 27 percent of the payroll cost incured under PAYG public pension system. Tax rate, required to bear the cost of current stock of pension liabilities is 12.4 percent respectively.

According to Congressional Budget Office, the average real rate of return for large-company stocks between 1926 and 2000 is 7.7 percent, 9.0 percent of small-company stocks and 2.2 percent for long-term Treasury bonds. Feldstein (1997) estimated that PAYG implicit rate of return is 2.6 percent.

Assume an individual wants to maximize the lifetime earnings in the capital market. An individual is offered 2.6 percent implicit return from PAYG system. The individual enters the labor market at certain age, say 25, and intends to retire upon the age of 65. Assume he invests $10.000 annually in the capital market to create retirement annuities upon labor market withdrawal. Assuming the implicit rate of return (2.6 percent), the stock of overall annuity would be 10 times the initial investment in 90 years. Assuming the average long-run real rate of return from large-company stocks (7.7 percent), the the overall annuity would be 10 times the initial stock of investment in 31 years. Therefore, the individual would reach the desired level of lifetime earnings at the age of 56 or 9 years before the targeted retirement age.

I assumed the distribution of lifetime investment portfolio is weighted average of availible asset types: large-company stocks (33 percent), small-company stocks (19 percent), long-term corporate bonds (20 percent), long-term Treasury bonds (20 percent) and 3-month Treasury bills (8 percent). According to the average annual real rates of return in the United States (1926-2000), I calculated the weighted average real rate of return (5.247 percent). Investing $10.000 annually at the age of 25 would buy $100.000 annuity at 5.247 real rate of return in 45 years (the age of 70) compared to 90 years (the age of 115) under the PAYG implicit rate of return (2.6 percent). Of course, the time to buy the annuity would shift alongside the changing composition of portfolio.

In addition, OECD countries should immediately increase the effective retirement age. I believe the solution suggested by Gary Becker is both meaningful but sustainable in reversing the growth of generational debt. Becker (2010) suggestedOne simple and attractive rule would be to raise retirement age by an amount that makes the ratio of years spent in retirement to years spent working equal to the ratio that existed at the beginning of the social security system.

When President Roosevelt signed the notorious Social Security Act in 1935, the normal retirement age was 65. However, life expectancy after the age of 65 was significantly lower than is today. In 1940, average life expectancy after 65 in the U.S was 13.7 years. In 2006, it stood at 18.6 years, according to OECD. In 1935, the average life expectancy at birth in the United States was 61.7 years. We assume that individuals in 1935 worked for 35 years and spent 12 years in retirement. The ratio is thus 0.4 (12/ 35=0.34). Today, if individuals retire at the age of 65, they can expect further 18.6 years in retirement. To equalize the ratio to the 1935 level, (18.6/x=0.34), individuals should spend 54.7 years working. The estimate time is an equivalent measure of years required to spend working if PAYG public pension system is left intact. Assuming the individuals enter the labor market at the age of 25, then the expected effective retirement age is the age of 80.

In the long run, PAYG public pension system is unsustainable since demographic parameters do not suffice the assumptions under which the PAYG system is possible without distortions of labor supply incentives. The future of OECD countries will be marked by aging population, lower fertility rates and a growing demographic pressure on public finances. Without bold and decisive pension reform, OECD countries will experience increasing pension deficits and, hence, an explosive growth of generational indebtedness.

Parametric pension reforms are not a substitute for the postponement of paradigmatic pension reform. Thus, implementing the transition to fully-funded pension system essentially requires higher effective retirement age. A comprehensive pension reform cannot be made possible without these measures. At last, but not least, the major challenge in the systematic pension reform in OECD countries to address the burden of global aging, is whether political courage will withstand the pressure of interest groups to maintain the status quo of early retirement incentives. Nonetheless, eliminating early retirement incentives is the essential step towards creating retirement system without perverse incentives to retire too early. Unless political leaders encourage a transition to fully-funded pension system, OECD countries will be unable to withstand the deadly consequences of an enormous generational indebtedness.

No Recession in the Global Economy, but Divergence Aplenty

Yours truly is actually a macroeconomist, indeed with a knack for financial markets, but still; a macroeconomist nonetheless. However, you would not have gotten that impression from the writings here end last week where I worried a lot about the worry of financial markets. I still do, worry that is, mostly because we are in a very delicate situation where a severe shock in financial markets can easily and quickly be transmitted into the real economy. Moreover and as Edward eloquently conveys in his recent post the structural challenges we face are complex and difficult.

Yet, in terms of the immediate evolution in the real economy, and in case you had not noticed, the recovery is coming along just fine.

(click on pictures for better viewing)

If ever there was a clearer sign of a v-shaped recovery I’d like to see it. On an annual basis the EMU industrial production index rose 11.6% in Q1 2010 and on the quarter the increase was 4%. Despite the emerging crisis in the Eurozone and with reservations for the final number of Q2-10, this suggests that the turnaround is intact so far. Naturally, the level of industrial production is still very low compared to before the crisis and, as I have argued, this is an important gauge in terms of the overall strength of the momentum. But, the recovery remains real at this point

Of course, it is not difficult to pick the positive discourse apart and this applies especially to the Eurozone there is a bound to be notable divergence between the growth rate of economies. In particular, it does not take much Roubinesque imagination to see what awaits the famed Eurozone periphery (Spain, Portugal and Greece) who are now about to embark on a very brutal spell of internal devaluation; kind of like in the Baltics who are undergoing the same [1].

This comparison may of course be inappropriate for a number of reasons, but it provides a good yardstick with which to look ahead into especially 2011 where the first part of austerity measures will really start to bite. Whether the Eurozone “core” remains enough momentum to pull the Eurozone forward is really not the important issue here. The real problem here is that from here on imbalances (not just external) will compound. In the lingo of development economics the convergence which was thought inevitable and on track is now about to unravel. In this respect, the comparison with key parts of Eastern Europe is well chosen I think.

And not just Europe…

Yet, if the outlook for Europe is still very uncertain the global outlook is positive for the remainder of 2010 even if the momentum appears to be flattening out;

On an annual basis leading indicators for the major emerging economies as well as the OECD are coming in very strongly for Q1-10 and also over the quarter (i.e. from Q4-10) do we observe growth with the notable exception of China where activity seems to levelling off a tad going into 2010 on the back of continuing measures by the government to restrain the economy.

It is difficult to deny that the leading indicators tracked by the OECD seems to be flattening moving into Q2-10 and it will naturally be interesting to see whether momentum will be sustained. As ever, divergence both in levels and actual growth rates will be paramount to factor in, but I am very confident that we are not going to see a double dip recession in for example the US let alone the emerging market edifice in 2010. In Europe, the tug-of-war will between growth in France and Germany (with the latter exporting to EMs as the only real source of growth) and a continuing slump in Southern Europe. However, since 2010 budgets are already passed to indicate very stimulative policies throughout Europe the growth momentum will be strong in 2010 although the medium to long term look decidedly awful.

Event Risk still High

As a natural finishing point it should not escape market participants and analysts alike that event risk is currently at a very high level. In many ways, we already have an event in so far as goes the crisis in Europe but I can think of plenty of more sources of potential market destabilisers. The point here is then that at the current juncture the transmission between market distress and the real economy is likely to be strong and relatively quick. In this sense, the recent news that the interbank market is freezing over once again is indicative that not all is well and I am watching this very closely.

As such I maintain my somewhat bearish inclination and deep skepticism for where aggregate demand is actually going to come from in the medium to long term; this especially the case in Europe whereas I am much more constructive on emerging economies who are, for all intent and purposes, doing well (indeed almost too well in some cases).

A number of well known proverbs spring to mind here; is the glass half full or half empty? Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? Whatever methaphor you prefer forward looking indicators point to strong growth in the first half of 2010 (at least). The key message on the real economy will thus be one of divergence and especially how some economies are doomed to deflation and negative growth in nominal GDP (in the context of internal devaluation) while others will fly on the back of excess global liquidity. For me, this is the main meta-discourse currently describing the global economy.

[1] – Q1-10 GDP is only available for Lithuania so for the two others the calculations ends with Q4-09.

Israel graduated into OECD

Israel graduated into OECD. Theirs is an interesting saga.

In 1977, they liberalised the capital account, and got themselves into a mess. This opening of the capital account was then reversed.

In the 1990s, they got back to this issue, and by this time, the `impossible trinity’ was better understood. By 2003, all capital controls had been removed, alongside a shift to a floating exchange rate and inflation targeting. Capital outflows were liberalised as well, so their typical configuration involves large capital inflows alongside large capital outflows, which avoids one-way pressures on the exchange rate.

The next few `accession candidate countries’ for OECD are Estonia, Russia and Slovenia. Here is the list of existing members.