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October 19, 2006
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October 12th 2006
1) The Nobel prize for economics - A natural choice
Edmund Phelps earns the economics profession's highest accolade
Phelps's time has finally come
BORN in the trough of the Great Depression, Edmund Phelps, a professor at Columbia University who this week won the Nobel prize for economics, has spent much of his intellectual life studying slumps of a different kind. The Depression, which cost both of his parents their jobs, was exacerbated by the monetary authorities, who kept too tight a grip on the money supply. Mr Phelps is interested in unemployment that even open-handed central bankers cannot cure.
Most scholars stand on the shoulders of giants. But Mr Phelps won his laurels in part for kicking the feet from under his intellectual forerunners. In 1958 William Phillips, of the London School of Economics, showed that for much of the previous hundred years, unemployment was low in Britain when wage inflation was high, and high when inflation was low. Economists were quick—too quick—to conclude that policymakers therefore faced a grand, macroeconomic trade-off, embodied in the so-called “Phillips curve”. They could settle for unemployment of, say, 6% and an inflation rate of 1%—as prevailed in America at the start of the 1960s—or they could quicken the economy, cutting unemployment by a couple of percentage points at the expense of inflation of 3% or so—which is roughly how things stood in America when Mr Phelps published his first paper on the subject in 1967.
In such a tight labour market, companies appease workers by offering higher wages. They then pass on the cost in the form of dearer prices, cheating workers of a higher real wage. Thus policymakers can engineer lower unemployment only through deception. But “man is a thinking, expectant being,” as Mr Phelps has put it. Eventually workers will cotton on, demanding still higher wages to offset the rising cost of living. They can be duped for as long as inflation stays one step ahead of their rising expectations of what it will be.
The stable trade-off depicted by the Phillips curve is thus a dangerous mirage. The economy will recover its equilibrium only when workers' expectations are fulfilled, prices turn out as anticipated, and they no longer sell their labour under false pretences. But equilibrium does not, sadly, imply full employment. Mr Phelps argued that inflation will not settle until unemployment rises to its “natural rate”, leaving some workers mouldering on the shelf. Given economists' almost theological commitment to the notion that markets clear, the presence of unemployment in the world requires a theodicy to explain it. Mr Phelps is willing to entertain several. But in much of his work he contends that unemployment is necessary to cow workers, ensuring their loyalty to the company and their diligence on the job, at a wage the company can afford to pay.
“Natural” does not mean optimal. Nor, Mr Phelps has written, does it mean “a pristine element of nature not susceptible to intervention by man.” Natural simply means impervious to central bankers' efforts to change it, however much money they print.
Economists, including some of his own students, commonly take this natural rate to be slow-moving, if not constant, and devote a great deal of effort to estimating it. Mr Phelps, by contrast, has been more anxious to explain its fluctuations, and to recommend measures to lower it. His book “Structural Slumps”, published in 1994, is an ambitious attempt to provide a general theory of how the natural rate of unemployment evolves. Some of the factors that he considered important—unemployment benefits or payroll taxes, for example—are widely accepted parts of the story. Others are more idiosyncratic. He and his French collaborator, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, have, for example, blamed Europe's mounting unemployment in the 1980s in part on Ronald Reagan's budget deficits, which were expansionary at home, but squeezed employment in the rest of the world.
A few years ago David Warsh, an economic journalist, lamented that the glare of the Nobel prize left other equally deserving economists, such as Mr Phelps, languishing “in the half-lit penumbra of the shortlist”. This week, after an unaccountably long lag, professional acclaim for this bold, purposeful theorist finally converged on its natural rate.
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October 13th 2006
2) Losing its lustre
An anti-poverty campaigner and a bank in Bangladesh have won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The purpose of the prize has become muddled. It may be better to withhold it next time.
BRAVERY is a characteristic shared by most winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. On Friday October 13th, the Norwegian part of the Nobel Institute (a Swedish body that dishes out the other coveted prizes, for science and literature) named the recipient of the 2006 peace award. An unofficial shortlist included a pair of Irish rock stars who have received a lot of attention for trying to promote development in Africa, a Finnish diplomat who works at the UN and who has lobbied for peace in Indonesia and a Vietnamese Buddhist. In fact the award was given to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen bank in Bangladesh, which promotes lending to the poorest, especially women.
But the Nobel committee could have made a braver, more difficult, choice by declaring that there would be no recipient at all. That might ruin a good party—each year the lucky winner (who also gets a cash prize of $1.3m or so) is honoured with a lavish award ceremony in Oslo, Norway's capital, given a commemorative medal, and attention is shone on his particular good cause. Some recent examples include a campaign to ban landmines; the promotion of peace in Northern Ireland; efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar (which used to be called Burma).
Withholding the prize for a year, or possibly five, might seem rather callous. But the institute would not be suggesting that the world has become sufficiently peaceful now. Some do argue that wars are generally in decline. Last year a think-tank in Canada released a “Human Security Report” which noted that 100-odd wars have expired since 1988. Their study found that wars and genocides have become less frequent since 1991, that the value of the international arms trade has slumped by a third (between 1990 and 2003), and that refugee numbers have roughly halved (between 1992 and 2003). Yet, despite all that, there are clearly enough problems today—Darfur, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, international terrorism—to keep the hardest-working peace promoters busy.
The reason for the institute to withhold the prize, instead, would be to preserve its value. There is a risk that its worth is being eroded as the institute scrambles to find an eye-catching recipient every year. There is the problem of Buggins's turn, an expectation (as with some other prizes) that the award should rotate between regions of the world. This year it is Asia, last year the recipient was from the Middle East, the year before from Africa.
Some recipients seem less than deserving. Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho declined the award in 1973 when he was asked to share it with America’s Henry Kissinger. The two had signed a ceasefire agreement that year, but fighting continued in Vietnam for another two years. The recent decision to give the prize to a Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, was also odd: she has done a lot to plant trees in Kenya, but not much to promote peace. Worse, she holds bizarre views on AIDS, suggesting that HIV was created by evil scientists to kill black people. This year’s winner is an admirable anti-poverty campaigner, but it is a stretch to call him or the Grameen bank peacemakers.
In searching out individuals to praise for a variety of good deeds, to make celebrities of the well-meaning in various walks of life, is to confuse the purpose of the prize: to promote peace. The organisers could recall that on 19 occasions since the prize was first given out in 1901, the institute declared that it could find no fitting winner. During much of the first and second world wars, for example, no winner was named. But the last time the institute dared to do that was in 1972. What has changed since then, one might suspect, is that the institute has found it has a great need—for marketing purposes perhaps—to give out the prize. The challenge, for the next few years, will be to find the bravery to hold back.
18 de octubre de 2006
Dragones y elefantes
China es sin duda el más espectacular de los BRICs, el grupo de economías superemergentes que además abarca a Brasil, Rusia e India. Su impacto alcanza a todos los rincones del planeta, incluso los más remotos de África o de América Latina, como muestra una serie de estudios recientemente publicados por la OCDE.
Este movimiento, después de la cesión de activos de la estatal petrolera PDVSA en Estados Unidos, da más consistencia a la estrategia de Caracas de ir reduciendo su dependencia con EE.UU., que absorbe más de la mitad del crudo exportado por Venezuela.
Desde el punto de vista de EE.UU., esta creciente solidaridad contradice la estrategia que se buscó a lo largo de la última década, de asegurarse el abastecimiento de crudo con los países más cercanos como Canadá, México, Colombia… y Venezuela, siendo este país clave: en 2005, 12% del crudo importado por EE.UU. procedía de Venezuela (por ahora China sólo importa 2% de su crudo desde Caracas).
La amplitud del vuelo del dragón chino, sin embargo puede impedirnos vislumbrar el paso y el peso que está cobrando el elefante indio, incluso en América Latina. A mediados de 2006, la multinacional de capital indio Mittal Steel se hizo del control de la europea Arcelor, por 27.000 millones de euros, creando al líder mundial del acero. Esta operación no sólo plasma la toma de control de una multinacional europea por una emergente. Además tiene ramificaciones latinoamericanas importantes por la presencia de Arcelor en Brasil. El nexo entre India y América Latina no podía ser más espectacular.
De manera mucho más directa, a mediados de 2006 se dio una de las inversiones más importantes en el exterior por parte de una empresa india. Se concretó precisamente en América Latina. La inversión por un importe de 2.000 millones de euros de Jindal Steel and Power en Bolivia es emblemática para el creciente apetito inversionista en el exterior por parte de los grupos indios. Igualmente, la petrolera india ONGC y la china Sinopec han invertido conjuntamente en una empresa colombiana de exploración petrolera, Omimex. Como en el caso de las empresas chinas, el interés indio por América Latina está centrado en el sector de materias primas.
La creciente vinculación entre Asia y América latina es simbólica del gran vuelco que está dando el mundo. El centro y la periferia se están rediseñando a gran velocidad. Europa, Japón y Estados Unidos se desvanecen como centros omnipotentes, para dejar plaza a una configuración más atomizada donde surgen islas que se convierten en continentes. Esta tectónica está siendo en gran parte activada por los países emergentes, como lo muestra la articulación entre sus multinacionales, a la imagen de la brasileña CVRD y la china Baosteel.
Para América Latina, ambos vínculos con Asia se presentan también como un reto. Para los productores de materias primas contribuyen al boom exportador. Sin embargo, este mismo auge podría anestesiar toda voluntad de diversificación, con el riesgo de encerrarse, como África, en el callejón de difícil salida de las exportaciones de bajo valor añadido. Por si fuera poco, las minas y los pozos de petróleo no son grandes generadores de empleo.
Es aquí donde aparece el segundo desafío: esta diversificación, para los países que no la emprendieron, interviene en un momento crítico, precisamente cuando China e India están irrumpiendo en los mercados internacionales. Para los países latinoamericanos que consiguieron dotarse de alguna diversificación, el desafío asiático opera igualmente como una alerta para despertarse de un sueño que podría convertirse en pesadilla.
Todos deberán contar, para bien y para mal, con los gigantes asiáticos. No existe, sin embargo fatalidad. El malestar o el bienestar no son eternos. China e India pueden ser ángeles hoy y demonios mañana. Pero algo es seguro: para evitar que el vuelo del dragón los derribe, o que la carrera del elefante los atropelle, los emergentes latinoamericanos deberán esquivar y seguir en movimiento.
17 de octubre de 2006
«Esta nueva inversión se suma a los 400 millones de dólares y los más de 000 empleos que gm ha creado o mantenido desde mediados...