GIIPS labour costs not moving in the "competitive" direction

by Rebecca Wilder

GIIPS labour costs not moving in the “competitive” direction
The GIIPS (Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain) hope: exports. Fiscal austerity crimps the saving of the private sector. And provided the governments make good their plans to put on the fiscal straight-jacket, there’s no other impetus for growth except foreign demand. Financial crises are often accompanied by currency crises, i.e., Sweden 1991, which drives export growth if there is sufficient external demand. For Sweden, there was.

For the GIIPS, there is not. But worse yet, there’s not a possibility of a currency crisis deep enough to drive sufficient external demand growth in Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Therefore, it’s generally understood that the GIIPS will get the economic boost if internal competitiveness is restored. Put another way, in lieu of a domestic impetus to economic growth, “internal devaluation” (Marshall Auerback calls it “infernal devaluation”), i.e, dropping hourly labor costs and final goods prices through productivity gains and reform, is the only economic means to attract a sufficient boost of external income to grow the economy.

Well, internal labour cost devaluation has yet to materialize in the GIIPS or the Eurozone as a whole. According to last week’s Eurostat release of Q1 2010 quarterly labour costs for the European Union, labour costs are still very much rising:

The two main components of labour costs are wages & salaries and non-wage costs. In the euro area, wages & salaries per hour worked grew by 2.0% in the year up to the first quarter of 2010, and the non-wage component by 2.1%, compared with 1.6% and 2.0% respectively for the fourth quarter of 2009. In the EU27, hourly wages & salaries rose by 2.3% and the non-wage component by 1.9% in the year up to the first quarter of 2010, compared with 1.9% and 2.5% respectively for the previous quarter.

There is a lag associated with labor cost growth, especially in Europe. But over the last two years, the Eurozone 16 saw labour costs rise a cumulative 5.3%, which is on par with the previous two-year horizon, 5.7%; labour cost growth isn’t even slowing.
(this chart was updated at 4:00pm on June 23)

The chart illustrates the two-year cumulative labour cost gains across the Eurozone 16 (seasonally and working-day adjusted) alongside the annual gains over the last year (working-day adjusted only). Note: country-level data for Ireland, Finland are not available. Furthermore, country-level data through Q1 2010 are not available for Belgium, Italy, and Greece, so Q4 2009 is used instead.

According to the measure of “labour costs”, it appears that “competitiveness” is not improving markedly in any country across the Eurozone, especially in the GIIPS that need it. In contrast, US nonfarm business unit labor costs dropped 4.2% over the last two years.

To be sure, there are other measures of “infernal devaluation”, like final goods prices. But strictly speaking labour costs remain too sticky in the Eurozone to attract external demand sufficient enough to offset the drag that would stem from the announced fiscal tightening across Europe.

Rebecca Wilder