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Friday, March 31, 2006

Antartica: The Balloon Goes Up

Scientists using data obtained via the deployemnt of weather balloons have found that that the air above the entirety of Antarctica has warmed by as much as 0.70 degree Celsius per decade - more than was previously thought - during the winter months since the end of the 1950s.

John Turner of the British Antarctic Survey is quoted as saying that:

"The rapid surface warming of the Antarctic Peninsula and the enhanced global warming signal over the whole continent shows the complexity of climate change......Greenhouse gases could be having a bigger impact in Antarctica than across the rest of the world and we don't understand why."

The authors are at pains to point out that they cannot ascribe a particular cause to the warming, although they have ruled-out several potential explanations, including heat transfer from other regions. What they cannot say is whether the change is really due to the increased presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or is the result of natural variations in Antarctica's climate system.

Part of the problem may simply be the inadequacy of our exiting models, so their next step, as they say, "is to try to improve the models."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Peruvian Politics

The policy package which the FT reports that Peruvian front running Presidential candidate Ollanta Humala is adocating is striking:

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Humala also pledged to introduce “21st-century nationalisation” and said he would refuse to sign the trade deal Peru has agreed with Washington. In addition, he promised to restrict imports from China, limit Chilean investment in Peru and end US-sponsored eradication of coca, the raw material for cocaine........

The candidate repeatedly struck a protectionist note, warning of the need to “protect internal markets and aid economic development”. He warned that “imports of cheap textiles from China are wrecking our textiles industry”.

“Small productive companies that provide employment are being destroyed. We should restrict those imports,”

What is most interesting about the possible evolution of Peru if Humala is elected is how much it mirrors what is currently happening in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Latin America is certainly dividing demographically, with countries like Argentina, Chile, and in all probability Brazil, seriously looking like they well on the way up the development ramp. Columbia looks like it is somewhere in the middle, moving now this way, now that.

A quick look at the median ages and the respective fertility rates may help clarify why this might be happening, and why we are seeing such a resurgence in assertiveness from the continent's indigenous 'Latino' population.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Deficit Dilemmas

Well there's some good news and some bad news for Brad Setser in today's FT. First the bad news.

"many economists say that even dramatic gestures by China would do surprisingly little to reverse the (current account) imbalance. The impact of currency movements on trade flows, they say, has been dwindling because of “local cost” pricing, where companies adjust price tags to keep in line with competitors, rather than according to fluctuations in the exchange rate."

Well here's one economist who agrees with this. The FT offers some evidence for its argument:

The US experience with Europe is instructive. Since its peak in July 2001 the euro has risen 44 per cent against the dollar. In spite of this boost to US competitiveness, the US bilateral deficit with the eurozone has grown by 75 per cent, from $53bn in the 12 months to July 2001 to $93bn in the past year.

“If an appreciation of the euro didn’t help that much, it makes you question why a revaluation of the renminbi would hold the key to reducing the US deficit,” says Paul Meggyesi, currency strategist at JPMorgan.

Well quite. So the lesson would seem to be that while - as Brad constantly reminds us - currency values matter, for international trade purposes it seems that, in a globalised world, they don't matter as much as they used to. Now for the 'good' news (if you can call it that):

Paul Donovan, global economist at UBS, says a revaluation of the renminbi would be ineffective in reducing the US deficit since most of the goods China sells to the US are not widely produced in America. About half of Chinese exports to the US fall into three categories – office machines, clothing and footware, and toys and other plastic goods – that represent just 4 per cent of US manufacturing production.

“If the US did not buy these goods from China it would have to buy them from abroad anyway,” says Mr Donovan. “As a result, the impact on the deficit would be very small

Now I call this good news for Brad, since this does form part of the case he has been making. The US export base is now so comparatively small compared to the scale of its imports that even significant growth elsewhere is only going to make a relatively small dent in the problem:

some economists argue that even a dramatic surge in demand in Europe and Japan might have a surprisingly modest impact on the deficit. US exports are now just 60 per cent as large as imports, which means the rest of the world would need not only to catch up with US growth rates but significantly outpace the US in order to start narrowing the deficit.

According to the Institute for International Economics, every 1 percentage point rise in real growth in the rest of the world reduces the deficit by a mere $15bn. Fred Bergsten, director of the IIE, says even if growth rates doubled in Europe and Japan, “this would only mean a $30bn reduction in the deficit. This would be good news and would be great if it happened but it is not the solution to the deficit”.

Moreover, the US has a much greater appetite for imports relative to domestic demand than does the rest of the world. Even if the US and European economies grow by the same rate, then imports will rise by more in the US.

So the only viable solution would seem to lie in slowing growth in the US itself, and Bernanke is, of course, set on this path. But this would be no 'free lunch' since any significant slowdown in US growth would be bound to hit growth elsewhere, expecially in export dependent economies like Germany, Japan and China.

Meantime the US legislative system trundles on with its attempts to define and act against the 'currency manipulators. The latest development is a bill in the Senate from Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Max Baucus, the committee’s leading Democrat, although as the FT points out this rather toothless measure seems largely "intended .... to draw away support from more draconian legislation that would impose 27.5 per cent tariffs on all Chinese imports to the US".

Show Me The Money?

Well Skype seems to be attracting a lot of what they call 'unsolicited and undersireable' attention at the moment. As Andy Abramson at VoIPWatch puts it:

"the 30+ page Streamcast Networks complaint against Skype.... reads as much like a Hollywood film treatment that needs to star Paul Newman as the attorney ala his roles in "The Verdict" or "Absence of Malice."

What's it all about? Well Om Malik puts it pretty bluntly:

Earlier today, when I asked a smart attorney about the Skype-Streamcast fracas, aka the RICO suit, he said that most civil (RICO) suits are about three things - money, money, and money.

Well, well, well, what a lot of dirty washing there seems to be in the back room af such a clean and easy to use technology. TechDirt has, as you might deduce from the name, most of the low-down on this one.

Monday, March 27, 2006

French Labour Market Reforms

The French labour market is, of course, once more in the news. Emmanuel (Ceteris Paribus, in French) has a timely post on A Fistful of Euros. Danish blogger Claus Vistesen had a thoughtful post about the situation last week, pointing to the relevance of some of the comments being made by Bloomberg columnist Mathew Lynn. Today another Bloomberg columnist - Caroline Baum - also talks a lot of sense:

Is it possible these fortunate, educated young men and women can't see where the road ends? If my French weren't so rusty, I'd sit down with one of the students and ask her a few questions. I can only fantasize about the response.

CB: Are you aware that you are objecting to a law that would actually improve your chances of finding a job when you graduate?

French Student: Mais non. We have a social contract with the government that protects us from the dehumanizing experience of being discarded. We are happy to have guaranteed benefits -- education, health care, a good pension -- and enjoy our life without worrying about the future.

Natural Rights

CB: You want all the benefits, but what about the cost? Creating disincentives for the private sector to hire increases the burden on the public sector, which is already the third largest in the industrialized world. Last year, total French government spending was 53 percent of GDP, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. With French unemployment at 9.6 percent, youth unemployment running at more than 22 percent and 40 percent among certain minorities -- remember the riots last fall? -- the government should be making it easier for private companies to hire and fire.

FS: But a job is a right!

CB: It is? It's not among the rights delineated by the Founding Fathers of our arguably young nation: those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are unalienable: They are not the government's to give or to take away.

How do we know whether something is a right or not? If the exercise of my right puts a burden on you -- my right to a job forces you to hire me -- by definition it can't be a right. Everyone can exercise his or her rights simultaneously without imposing a burden on someone else.

I think Baum gets to the core of the issue, job creation at the expense of the public purse is no longer a serious policy option in France, at least not if they want to maintain some semblance of their welfare and pensions system it isn't. This was the point of the recent Pebereau report which I posted about here. France now has to make a sustained long term effort to reduce the growing dependence on indebtedness to finance current needs. This can only be done by increasing the share of GDP created in the private sector, which means France needs to put a bigger share of its population to work.

Morgan Stanley economist Eric Chaney makes offers some very to the point arguments about insiders and outsiders here. An unusually contrarian view from Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial times is unfortunately behind the firewall:

The students are winning the political battle against Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, over his labour contract for young people, known as CPE. At first sight, the travails of Mr de Villepin fit a depressing pattern of Europe's chronic inability to reform. The prime minister is portrayed in the media as an idealistic political leader who tried to do the right thing, but failed. In the same vein, the young protesters on the streets of Paris look as though they stand in the way of France's transition to the 21st century.

This narrative is as widespread as it is false. As far as I know there exists no reputable academic foundation for Mr de Villepin's specific proposal – a work contract that removes employment protection for the young, while leaving it fully in place for the old. There is some consensus in the labour market literature that excessive employment protection can lead to high unemployment among certain groups, including the young. But this consensus does not imply the selective removal of employment protection for a single age group. I would suspect that most labour market economists would be on the side of the students in this conflict.

I don't really see where Munchau wants to go with this argument. He is certainly right that there is little theoretical justification for leaving employment protection fully in place for older workers, both issues need to be addressed, but this hardly seems to be a justification for not takling one of the problems, which, as we can see, is a difficult enough issue in and of itself.

Cheney in fact offers some explanation of and backing for the Munchau view, in the sense that piecemeal reform may prove impossible without addressing the bigger issue of insider contracts. But are they right? Today's protesting students will be tomorrow's protected insiders. Is there any real reason to expect that they would be more favourable to a change which instead of offering them a couple of years of possible instability offered them a lifelong reform? Or is there any reason to expect that adding the issue of removing contractual protection for older workers would make the bullet any easier to bite. Is revolution more digestible than reform? I have my doubts.

There is a strange similarity between the kind of coalition which is emerging in opposition to the Kleenex generation issue(and this generation certainly isn't going to be used and then thrown away, in my view, the couple of years of cheap temporary contracts will make them more, not less, valuable) and the opposition to the recent EU constitution proposal. People are opposed for diverse reasons. Maybe some are opposed because they feel a more equitable reform, attacking the whole issue of protected contracts, is what is needed (just like they felt a better EU constitution was required) but the vast majority are more than likely opposed to any such flexibilisation agenda in and of itself.

Of course, Munchau and Cheney may well be right at the 'real politik' level: maybe this proposal will go the way of the former Balladur one (some 13 years ago) and then maybe push will come to shove and a more complete and more radical change will be introduced after the Presidential elections in 2007, but don't expect this to be an easy ride for anyone, whatever the outcome of that vote.

Closing Windows of Opportunity?

The LA Times has an op-ed on the principal topic of my last post: whether Ms Windows is losing some of its relevance:

"Since XP was released in 2001, however, there has been an accelerating shift away from programs that run entirely on your own computer, such as Microsoft Word, to applications and services based on the Web, such as Google's Blogger. You can tap into your corporate computer network, communicate with friends, assemble photo albums, listen to music and manage your finances using little more than a Web browser. And the list of Web-based applications is only growing.

A good example is the Rhapsody music service from RealNetworks Inc. Launched in 2001, Rhapsody lets subscribers listen to an unlimited supply of songs for a flat monthly fee. For the first four years, subscribers could connect to Rhapsody only through a program that ran exclusively on Windows. In December, however, Real released a Web-based variation that works on Macs, Linux-powered computers and even older versions of Windows.

Another factor is the spread of computer-like power and functions to devices that don't need Windows. Videogame consoles, digital recorders, iPods, BlackBerrys and cellphones are encroaching on the PC's turf, and Apple Computer Inc. has demonstrated considerable flair in using its own software.

As a consequence, operating systems and the desktop programs they support just aren't as important as they used to be. Meanwhile, the task of assembling a new version of Windows has grown steadily more difficult, given the variety of software and hardware it needs to support. Microsoft originally promised a successor to XP by late 2003. That upgrade, dubbed Windows Vista, now won't be available for home computers until at least early 2007.

The longer it takes for Vista to emerge, the harder it will be for Microsoft to persuade people to make the switch. Already, competitors such as Google and Mozilla are making available for free some of the Vista features that Microsoft is touting.

Windows Vista

Recently I have been running a series of posts on Google's plans for the future and the looming battle with Microsoft (and here). During the last week there have been a number of articles in the press about the delayed launch of the new Windows Vista operating system, and I can't help thinking that the two issues are interconnected.

Today the NYT has an article which looks at a number of possible reasons for the delay (CNET version of the article here). The article contextualises Ms's problems in the 1998 US federal governmentlandmark antitrust suit against possible innovation stiffling over at Microsoft and points out that:

Eight years later, long after Microsoft lost and then settled the antitrust case, it turns out that Windows is indeed stifling innovation — at Microsoft.The company's marathon effort to come up with the a new version of its desktop operating system, called Windows Vista, has repeatedly stalled.

It then asks the question "what's wrong with Microsoft?". The answer offered is that Ms has become the victim of its own success (or at least of the strategy employed to achieve its own success). Microsoft is locked-into itself.

Windows runs on 330 million personal computers worldwide. Three hundred PC manufacturers around the world install Windows on their machines; thousands of devices like printers, scanners and music players plug into Windows computers; and tens of thousands of third-party software applications run on Windows. And a crucial reason Microsoft holds more than 90 percent of the PC operating system market is that the company strains to make sure software and hardware that ran on previous versions of Windows will also work on the new one — compatibility, in computing terms.

As a result, each new version of Windows carries the baggage of its past. As Windows has grown, the technical challenge has become increasingly daunting. Several thousand engineers have labored to build and test Windows Vista, a sprawling, complex software construction project with 50 million lines of code, or more than 40 percent larger than Windows XP.

"Windows is now so big and onerous because of the size of its code base, the size of its ecosystem and its insistence on compatibility with the legacy hardware and software, that it just slows everything down," observed David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "That's why a company like Apple has such an easier time of innovation."

Now this explanation is an interesting one since it raises the important underlying issue of what sort of operating system we (the non-commercial) users really need for the next generation computer and for the next generation set of internet applications and services.

I make no sectret of the fact that what I personally want is mobility, wide-ranging access to internet, and a minimal portable interface. This leads me to think about some sort of minimal thin-client or other. I personally don't feel the need for more os 'bloating' and don't see that this strategy will be a long term winner among non-commercial users, who will, remember, have another part of their needs increasingly catered for by the burgeoning mobile phone technology.

As an internal Ms memo quoted by the NYT states:

"Complexity kills. It sucks the life out of developers, it makes products difficult to plan, build and test, it introduces security challenges and it causes end-user and administrator frustration."

This isn't quite correct, complexity in an of itself doesn't kill, but it does if you have an underlying model which isn't adapted to it.

The Vista delay, according to Microsoft executives, is only a matter of a few more weeks to improve quality further, and is not attributable to any general flaw, but I can't help wondering, is MS itself wracked by doubts. To what extent will consumers follow it into the next generation. Certainly I can't help feeling that the intelligent consumer may now well decide to wait - maintain an 'options' approach - and see just how far things evolve - and in particular just how far Google evolves - before reaching into their wallet and committing to any new generation software or hardware. This is certainly what I plan to do.